Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Aesthetics of Online Privacy: Do We Communicate Context through Interface Design?

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

The Aesthetics of Online Privacy: Do We Communicate Context through Interface Design?

Article excerpt


In recent years, the intersection between privacy and new technologies continues to be a critical area of controversy and debate in American political and cultural discussions. Thousands of books related to privacy are released every year. A March 2004 search on for books containing the word "privacy" yielded a results page containing 45,751 items, a repeat search in March 2008 yielded 184,398 books (a more than four-fold increase in as many years). Privacy literature would appear to be growing exponentially.

Privacy has many meanings. For some, privacy is a matter of restricting access to individuals within society. (2) For others, privacy is about personal autonomy and control of one's body. (3) And within each of these categories exist several sub-groupings of issues. Within the ranks of the access-based privacy advocates some argue for protection of one's image, others for data protection and still others for the safeguarding of space. Within the ranks of the autonomy-based privacy advocates, some argue for abortion rights, some for medical rights and others for DNA genome protections.

This work is an attempt to demonstrate how interface design is often used to exploit confusion among data consumers about what constitutes privacy, leading many to disclose their valuable data for little, if any, compensation. In order to grasp how privacy norms are manipulated in online environments, it will be necessary to examine what role contextual clues play in the information disclosure decisions of Internet users.

Rosen described privacy in terms of context, as decisions concerning information disclosure depend heavily on the circumstances, audience and perceived implications of the disclosure. (4) Palen and Dourish argue that privacy in networked contexts is a negotiated process conditioned by the expectations and experiences of the disclosing users. (5)

   Dey, Abowd and Salber defined context as

   any information that can be used to characterize the situation of
   entities (i.e., whether a person, place, or object) that are
   considered relevant to the interaction between a user and
   an application, including the user and the application themselves.
   Context is typically the location, identity, and state of the
   people, groups, and computational and physical
   objects". (6)

Grudin presented an example of how changes in the context of information dissemination through aggregation of a search engine for a newsgroup called Deja News altered the experience of newsgroup readers, as one put it "we were discovering things about our colleagues that we didn't want to know." (7)

Privacy attitudes are neither static nor inflexible. When people see that the potential benefits for an information transaction outweigh the potential risks, they voluntarily adjust their privacy comfort levels. (8) Stutzman surveyed 200 students and found that while students tend to view protecting their identity information online as important and cite concerns about the consequences of sharing information, they do not feel their online identity is well-protected nor do they plan to curb their future disclosure activities. (9)

McMillan and Morrison used qualitative analysis to show that college students increasingly rely on Internet technology in each of four primary domains (self, family, real communities and virtual communities). (10) But the relationships maintained in each of these domains can be quite different, and the information disclosure decisions would hardly be consistent between domains. Context would appear to be rather important to how students manage personal information.

Interface design is defined by Steven Johnson as producing "software that shapes the interaction between user and computer. The interface serves as a kind of translator, mediating between the two parties making one sensible to the other." (11) Manuel Castells describes the back end of digital architecture as "unseen logic of the meta-network, where value is produced, cultural codes are created and power is decided. …

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