Feeding the fire: How Awareness affects Perception


Sara Wilford
De Montfort University


How does awareness of the issues affect individuals’ perceptions of privacy? It can be argued that the level of awareness has a direct impact on the importance individuals place on personal privacy. During a recent pilot study which was undertaken as part of a larger piece of research, it was noticed, that even within a small sample, the issues of awareness and perception came to the fore. The evidence collected from this study indicated a correlation between an awareness of the issues, and individuals’ perceptions of the need and importance of privacy. This correlation suggests that the higher the levels of awareness, the greater the importance is given to privacy protection.

This paper will seek to explore the extent to which privacy awareness and privacy perceptions are influenced by each other. It will discuss awareness of both the negative and positive abilities of information and communications technology (ICT), and will place an emphasis on the possibilities for privacy invasion and the potential effect this may have on individual perceptions in the future. What may not be seen as important now may eventually become a major issue of concern, by which time, legislation may already be in place and any change or reversal of policy seen as unworkable or impractical. The future for a free society may well be threatened by a lack of importance placed on privacy issues today.

Privacy has long been an area of debate and disagreement. Many advocates of privacy protection cite the threat to civil liberties and the danger of a panoptic society among the reasons for that need (Lyon 1994, Introna 1999, Spinello 1998). However, there is a need to establish the perceptions of individuals as to the extent of protection required within society. Ignorance of the issues of privacy and perceived need may lead to protection being inadequate or inappropriate. The importance of raising awareness within society has never been greater.

ICTs present new threats and dangers to privacy which may lead to the erosion of our rights and liberties without the awareness within society of the dangers the loss of privacy may engender. These dangers may include, extensive dossiers on many or all members of society, coercion of ‘undesireables’ which could include political opponents, state control reaching Orwellian proportions and the loss of free speech due to the potential for constant surveillance.

What is suggested here is that by ensuring a general awareness of the threats to society that ICT brings, there is a greater possibility that many of the more extreme scenarios can be avoided. However, the low publicity, back door approach to legislation currently being used by the British Government and others to introduce controls such as the Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill 2000, may mean that decision makers are already aware of the potential unease such regulations may produce within the citizenry, and are choosing to play down and minimise exposure and debate.

It is also important to be aware of positive issues which may be ignored or overlooked and which are important to maintain a balanced approach to privacy protection. Positive aspects are those such as access to a wide range of information via the Internet, increases in the speed of service provision and the maintenance of up-to-date records.

The quality of available information and its positive or negative emphasis may have an impact on the perceptions of individuals. Information needs to be delivered in an unbiased way and awareness of issues is not merely a case of digesting the facts as they are presented. We obtain much of our information about prominent issues from media exposé and commercial marketing ploys, neither of which can be said to be unbiased or always particularly informative of the actual issues. Government papers and official documents often prove lengthy, difficult to interpret, and available only to those who already know where to look. Therefore, an increase in the general awareness of privacy issues may only be possible when individuals have sufficient unbiased information presented in an accessible format.

Differences in culture and language may also impact on awareness. Often direct translations may produce slightly different meanings than that originally intended. Therefore, awareness between cultures within the same societal group may differ and need to be addressed.

Analysis of previous work has highlighted a lack of study of individual perceptions on privacy issues. This paper introduces the background to work in progress on individual perceptions of privacy within organisations. The research will enable some reflection to be made on societal trends in perceptions. It will also highlight the problems of privacy policy formulation for a society in which the majority are poorly informed, and therefore largely ignorant of the potential dangers the unbridled use of ICTs may bring.