Mapping the On-line Privacy Landscape

Alison Adam, Danijela Bogdanovic, Michael Dowd and Eileen Wattam


This paper reflects on some the research methods used in a project on on-line privacy, by one of the project partners. The project is interdisciplinary, involving university, local government and industrial partners. The project is one of three funded through a UK Research Council programme. Therefore the basis of the project, resting on the aims of the wider programme, is that there are privacy issues in connection with on-line interactions which individuals and on-line service providers do not currently understand and that such issues can be meaningfully researched and made sufficiently definite such that policy may be created and imaginative solutions, possibly involving software, may be designed.

As the social scientists of the project, our job was to identify project participants, drawing from appropriate demographics. Having done this we set about organizing and running focus groups, interviews and on-line privacy diaries. Nailing down privacy problems has proved to be more difficult and less difficult than we originally envisaged. Stories about on-line privacy are ubiquitous in the media. Scarcely a day passes without a scare story on young people and social media, password violations or loss of personal data by some official body. Clearly, there are widespread concerns about privacy on-line. However, across a range of ages and on-line experience, our project respondents revealed themselves as expert, often very imaginative users of information and communications technologies well able to handle multiple social, administrative and financial activities on-line most of the time without many problems. Did they see on-line privacy as a problem? It is tempting to suggest that they did after we researched them. The research acts as a sensitizing device for something which may or may not have been a ‘problem’ or for a range of activities that people do on-line which they may or may not regard as connected to privacy issues. However the project, within its wider programme, set against Digital Britain (and Digital Europe) initiatives is part of a substantial hinterland where on-line privacy is a key problem to be solved in the journey towards a Digital Britain. In this paper we reflect on the ways in which our research methods contribute not just to the articulation of the problem but to the creation of the problem.