This is about privacy, and privacy is about everything.

This work is about privacy, a riff on my dissertation.

A person may not be certain what ‘privacy’ is but they care deeply about it.  You can prove this by trying to open a locked stall door from the outside next time you are in a public bathroom.  The concept of privacy is strong in each of us, we mediate what we say, to whom we say it and where.  In mediating conversations we are each asserting control over what information we disclose about ourselves and others.  That information includes not only our thoughts and opinions, but our behaviour itself.  We act, speak and even dress differently when we are at work, a pub with some friends or at home alone.  These decisions, to dress, speak and behave in accordance with our environment are sprinkled throughout our lives.

Social Impacts

In society, privacy also has a group preservation function; by allowing people to periodically separate from one another, we can remain in relationships (Schwartz, 1968).  We each determine how much privacy we need, from whom and when throughout our day.  As the days change, so do we, and our privacy preferences accordingly (Westin, 1967).

The development of computing marked a change in how people interact with machines, and eventually with each other.  Indeed, “(t)he prospect of enhanced or changed flows of information among people raises many other social psychological issues” (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984).  In some cases, computing devices themselves have become the source for mediating our conversations and information disclosure choices (Turkle, 2011).

Computer Mediated Communications

There are 6 aspects of social psychology in Computer Mediated Communications that have a direct privacy impact.

  • Easy, rapid communications change the quantity, distribution and / or timing of information exchange.
  • The expectations for quick turnaround and fast processing time can lead to pressure to respond, resulting in impulsive information disclosures.
  • Communication through text reduces the coordination of communication.  This lack of nonverbal cues, i.e., body language, eliminates ongoing context used to regulate, modify and / or control information disclosures.
  • Related, textual communication eliminates all nonverbal context, e.g., physical space or attributes, which in turn eliminates another cue historically used to signal information sharing or withholding.
  • Software does not communicate organizational or relationship hierarchies well.  Relationships are a key factor for information disclosure decisions (Schwartz, 1968).  Messages are depersonalized, which can invite more assertive and / or uninhibited conversation.
  • In electronic communication, messages are received by two parties – the machine and the recipient – but people do not actively consider the machine in communication.
  • Finally, as technology evolves, the rules for computing behaviour and norms are developing.  Office and home, work and personal and formal and information language are often blurred together in the same communication.  The impact of information disclosures are relatively unpredictable, and remain unknown.

In essence, electronic communication has significantly fewer non-verbal and contextual cues that would normally be used by people to guide information disclosures.