Navigating Privacy


By Zoe Forster, SML Research Assistant

Parents are under the impression that teenagers disregard privacy. However, it seems that new technology and social media platforms have altered the social norms of privacy. To create an individual profile online, we must share pictures, digital content and respond to other people. With this, privacy is no longer about individual control, but also the context in which we engage.

Technology researchers suggest that the ways we manage our privacy is a lot like a venn diagram, where one sphere is action and the other is disclosure. But, how do we decide where the spheres overlap and what information we are willing to share with others? Many teenagers would tell you that it depends on the situation, and perhaps they are correct. We manage our personal privacy depending on a variety of factors — audience, physical environment, motivation or intention. We try to arrange our information in such a way that only specific people can view it a certain time or place. However, it can be extremely challenging to manage this flow of information. Often, there is a context collapse in which different audiences exists. This results in a sense of lost privacy.

For example, technology researchers Alice Marwick and danah boyd discuss how teenagers navigate privacy in networked publics. They interviewed teens about their privacy practices, including Hunter, a 14 year old from Washington, DC, who is frustrated that his friends and family members comment on Facebook statuses that are not intended for them. Clearly, social and linguistics cues are important in understanding status updates. To gain control in the social situation and a sense of privacy, he uses Facebook’s privacy settings to try to segment his audiences. For example, when he posts a status update meant for his school friends, he will block his cousins from viewing the content. This way, his cousins won’t comment on the status, but he does not have to de-friend them. Hunter’s actions emphasize the difficulty of controlling the flow of information in a public network.

In addition to Hunter, Mikalah, a black teenager from Washington DC emphasizes the ways in which we utilize a variety of privacy protecting tactics. Mikala is frustrated by her surveillance online since she is a financial responsibility of the state. She enjoys using Facebook to communicate with her friends, but wants to delete her Facebook account to ensure her personal privacy. However, she soon realized she couldn’t fully delete her account. Finding a way around the problem, she decided to deactivate her account at night and reactivate it in the morning. With this, people during the day would think she didn’t have a Facebook account while she could still talk to her friends at night. In her own way, Mikalah thought she would be invisible to the public.

In today’s digital landscape, we shape the way others interpret our personal information. The context of the situation is always changing based on social norms. This makes it particularly difficult for teenagers to control their personal information. However, these strategies and tactics emphasize the ways in which they manage such issues.

So, what does this mean for the future? A highly connected digital landscape can be quite dangerous. Georgetown University Professor Paul Ohm sums it up very clearly with his “database of ruin” concept. Essentially, there is a giant database that contains every piece of information in the world. Somewhere in this database is one piece of information that should be kept secret, but once the secret is out, it causes irreversible damage. Ohm suggests that it will take time before this information is traced back to the right individual. Perhaps the concept of privacy in a networked public has also reshaped the concept of anonymization.


This post is based on an essay written by Zoe Forster for COMM3560, Computing Cultures, at Cornell University.

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