Editor’s note: This is the eighth installment of the Living With Data series exploring how our online data is tracked, collected and used. Do you have questions about how your personal data is being used? Curious to learn more about your daily encounters with algorithms? Email the Decoder at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit your question via the form here. Screen shots and links are helpful clues!
“For someone with an interest in privacy, there’s certainly a lot about you online.”
Someone once said that to me, and I laughed because I never said my research was about privacy. It’s a common assumption that because I’m writing about data and algorithms, I’m working on privacy.
I often share personal details in my stories to get my point across — when Netflix thinks I have children, when fitness trackers don’t match my personal fitness needs, or when Facebook asks me about my fiancé. I understand the cognitive dissonance that comes from sharing these details in an article when it seems the concern is about privacy. I rarely use the word in my work or in introducing myself, yet people still categorize the set of concerns I raise as falling under the umbrella term “privacy.”
As more of our lives are made legible as data and more of our experiences are processed by algorithms, I think privacy is an inexact term and doesn’t fully encapsulate the range of our concerns. So if not “privacy,” what could we call our concerns over data instead?
Privacy means a lot of things in a lot of contexts. For the most part, it comes out of a legal heritage. It’s everything from Justice Brandeis’ 1890 concept of the “right to be let alone,” to the ability to act autonomously, to control over the personal space of the home or the body to control over information in different contexts. In the Information Age and now in the realm of Big Data, it often concerns personally identifiable information or sensitive information.
Aside from these legal contexts, I think the concept of privacy makes more sense when we apply it to relationships among humans rather than a description of the concerns that surface in sociotechnical systems.
Julia Angwin agrees that the term “privacy” isn’t cutting it anymore. From The Wall Street Journal’s What They Know series and now at ProPublica, she has investigated the business and technology of data and the Internet.