The Impact of Communication Technology on Privacy and Data in a Digital World
In a world dominated by the Internet, information is shared with ease, as communication technology allows connectivity to flourish on a global scale. However, with new ways to communicate and share data comes new ways for that data to be compromised. Communication technology has changed the face of privacy, subsequently causing us to experience new issues on an individual, group, and societal scale.
Privacy as a Digital Concept
Privacy is complex. When asked to define it, one may describe privacy as the process of guarding personal information, or as a way to keep oneself separate from the world. Privacy, however, is more than a hiding mechanism—it encompasses the implicit and explicit decision-making surrounding what information one chooses to share as well as what one chooses to keep contained. Put more simply, privacy is a means of sharing as well as a means of protection.
As described by Palen and Dourish (2003), privacy is a dialectic and dynamic boundary regulation process. (p. 129). Essentially, privacy changes based on individual circumstances and contexts. As a dialectic process, it is conditioned by one’s individual experiences, as well as the experiences of those that one interacts with. For example, if one has experienced a breach in privacy, or they know of someone else who experienced a breach, they may alter their concept of what privacy means, as well as their behavior surrounding privacy regulations. As one gains more information and has more experiences with privacy in different contexts, their concept of privacy shifts accordingly.
Similarly, as a dynamic process, privacy is under “continuous negotiation and management.” (Palen and Dourish, p. 129). One’s boundary between what is private and what is public is shifted based on individual circumstances; for example, one might loosen the boundary between private and public when in the presence of trusted companions but tighten that boundary in a professional or unknown setting. Overall, privacy is not static; one’s view of it shifts with experience, and the boundaries between shared versus contained information is changed based on specific context.
Thus far, privacy has been described as a concept applicable to any means of information sharing. Over a century ago, privacy was described as a right for protection of the person, as well as the “right to be left alone.” (Warren and Brandeis, p. 195). At that time, it was feared that “instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprises have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” and that “numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” (Warren and Brandeis, p. 195).
As technology has expanded and changed means of communication, the fears of the 1890s are quite feasible in today’s digital world. With smartphone and Internet access, what one whispers in a closet can indeed be recorded, screenshotted, and shared to the outside world. The ease of uploading images is such that one can photograph another in a private moment and share that photo with people all across the globe. With complex sharing and internet usage that would have been unimaginable in the late nineteenth century, communication technology has provided for privacy concerns to shift beyond simple leaked photographs or conversations into concerns regarding one’s behavioral and location data, social media habits, and search data.
Impact on Individuals
Communication technology, while allowing for friendships and other quality connections to be grown and maintained, has the ability to allow users to harm others. A poignant example is cyber-bullying, in which people use the internet as a means to degrade and emotionally damage other users. A powerful testament to cyber-bullying, and its connection to privacy concerns, is the case of Amanda Todd.
When Amanda was a budding teenager, she chatted with a man online; he requested that she flash him, at which time he took a photo of her exposed breasts. Once he acquired this photo, he followed her on the Internet for years, requesting that she expose herself to him again. Upon Amanda’s refusal, the man would find classmates on her Facebook profile, and then send them the photo he had taken of her. Amanda would transfer schools and the man would follow, sending photos to the new classmates that she encountered. Based on this harassment that plagued her beyond the digital world, Amanda Todd took her own life in 2012. (Dean).
Clearly, personal information that one shares online has the ability to become a real-life problem. Though information sharing was always possible through word of mouth or print, communication technology increases the speed and audience at which this information has the potential to reach. Cyber-bullying is an example of explicit information sharing, in that Amanda was aware that she was sharing information, though unfortunately she didn’t realize the malice with which it was regrettably received. Another individual privacy concern, however, is the information that individuals don’t realize they are sharing.
In 2018, 20.35 billion devices were connected to the Internet. (IoT). These connected devices are part of the Internet of Things, which refers to “the capability of everyday devices to connect to other devices and people through the existing Internet infrastructure.” (Center). Essentially, devices connected to the Internet are able to share data amongst themselves—for example, when using Google on one’s personal laptop, search queries used on that device will also be connected to one’s phone, via the shared Google account between the two.
Information being shared is more than search queries, however; as described by Hill and Mattu in their TEDtalk What your smart devices know (and share) about you, “if you buy a smart device, you should probably know—you’re going to own the device, but in general, the company is going to own your data.” According to Hill and Mattu, one in six American adults have a smart speaker, smart meaning that the device is connected to the internet and capable of gathering data. Hill turned her apartment into a smart home, by installing eighteen smart devices while Mattu used a router to monitor Hill’s smart home network activity. Throughout the two months of this experiment, “there wasn’t a single hour of digital silence in the house.” Mattu was able to tell every detail about Hill’s daily routine, which led to the conclusion that “the smart things you buy can and probably are used to target and profile you,” even if the purchaser does not explicitly realize the amount of data being shared.
Impact on Groups
Explicit and implicit information sharing, as discussed in the previous section, also have the ability to impact group privacy. Additionally, communication technology has provided the opportunity for collective privacy to occur, in that social media platforms allow groups to easily share information amongst themselves. Collective privacy can be defined as “the practices by which a group acts together to manage and regulate the boundaries around the information that pertains to the group as a whole.” (Jia et al.). An easy visualization of collective privacy is that of a football huddle: information shared in the huddle is collective, in that it is important to all members of the group, rather than just an individual. All members of the group also are invested in protecting that information against outsiders (i.e. spectators, the opposing team) in order to ensure the team’s success.
Though collective privacy can occur in both online and offline contexts, online spaces and communication technology allow for easier, more frequent communication amongst group members. In these spaces, members must determine what is and is not acceptable to be shared beyond the group; they have to negotiate the strength of the boundary between private and public information.
Beyond strongly affiliated groups, the concept of collective privacy can apply to larger, loosely associated groups, like those on social media sites as a whole. When sharing photos or posts on a social media site, ownership of that information is blurred—if one posts an image including a group of friends, do each have ownership of that photo, or does it just belong to the individual that posted it? If one posts a status on a site, who has the right to share that status beyond the site? Communication technology provides the opportunity for many people’s information to be leaked at once, which requires a recognition of group privacy that might not have previously been so problematic.
Impact on Society
Referring back to the Internet of Things, connected devices are a source of data for individual search histories, behavioral data, and more. (Center). Yet a downside of such data sharing is the ability for personalized propaganda. As discussed by Cadwalladr, websites with the sole purpose of pushing particular ideologies have the ability to “track and monitor and influence” anyone who comes in contact with their content. (p. 6). Data companies like Cambridge Analytica can use scripts that enable them to “precisely target individuals, to follow them around the web, and to send them highly personalized political messages.” (p. 7). Data manipulation like this has the potential to undermine democracy by only giving a voice to those with the monetary means to impact such tracking.
Overall, communication technology, privacy, and data intersect in a way that impacts us on an individual, group, and societal scale. The issues found at the individual scale—information sharing done both with and without awareness—are present at each subsequent scale, each with an impact on more people. Whether one shares individual information, information involving other people, or is even viewing search results, it is all linked back to privacy and data sharing influenced by communication technology. communication technology and privacy intersect in a way that impacts us on an individual, group, and societal scale– we must think critically about how the information we share is used for or against us as individuals, who has ownership of information shared within group settings, and how the information we view is influenced by others.
- Cadwalladr, C. (2016, December 04). Google, democracy and the truth about internet search.
- Center, E. P. (n.d.). EPIC – Internet of Things (IoT). Retrieved from
- Dean, M. (2017, June 19). The Story of Amanda Todd. Retrieved from
- Hill, K. and Mattu, S. (2018, April). What your smart devices know (and share) about you.
- “IoT: Number of Connected Devices Worldwide 2012-2025.” Statista, Statista,
- Jia, H. et al. (2019). Birds of a Feather: Collective Privacy of Online Social Activism Groups.
- Palen, L. and Dourish, P. (2003). Unpacking “Privacy” for a Networked World. CHI 2003: New
Horizons, 5(1), 129 – 136.
- Warren, S. and Brandeis, L. (1890). The Right to Privacy. Harvard Law Review, 4(5), 193 – 220.