What Is Privacy Like for People “at the Margins” of Society?

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on March 9, 2018


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For many people, privacy is not simply the ability to restrict access to information, but the ability to strategically control a social situation by influencing what information is available to others, how this information is interpreted, and how it will spread. Needless to say, networked technology complicates these dynamics, to the point where most people find themselves constantly negotiating between disclosure, concealment, and connection.
(Understanding Privacy at the Margins” by Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd, International Journal of Communication, March 2018)

 

“Privacy” and “privacy rights” are contested terms; they are debated in fields as varied as policymaking, computer science, law, and philosophy. In our current world of networked devices, privacy comes up in discussions with surveillance, data mining, health care, and social apps (to name a few examples). While there are decades of researching concerning privacy; very little attention has been given to how low-income individuals and people of color experience privacy.

 

danah boyd, founder of Data & Society and principal researcher with Microsoft Research, and Alice E. Marwick, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have teamed up to examine how privacy protections (or lack of them), business practices with data security and data mining, and regulations intended to safeguard privacy effect people whose lives are not part of mainstream America or Europe.

 

Ms. boyd and Professor Marwick compiled and edited a collection of original research papers for the International Journal of Communication that address “privacy at the margins.” “Special Section on Privacy at the Margins” strives to answer questions such as:

  • How does data collection affect those seeking to get public benefits?
  • In what ways do people from poorer and more rural environments approach digital privacy differently than those in more urban or privileged contexts?
  • How do low-income individuals harness technology, collective action, or other techniques to resist surveillance and protect their privacy?
  • In what ways does state or consumer surveillance affect transgender or gender non-conforming individuals?
 

The series of articles explore privacy experiences in India and in Appalachia, and among Aboriginal Australians and Azerbaijani youth. Several papers account for the skills needed to be successful at achieving privacy, and the trade-offs required by those who both gain and lose from being visible.

 

Understanding Privacy at the Margins,” written by Professor Marwick and Ms. boyd, is the introduction to the series. It discusses the need for learning about the privacy and surveillance experiences of people who live on the margins of society. The article then introduces the nine additional articles in this special section of the International Journal of Communication.

 

Below are a few excerpts from “Understanding Privacy at the Margins”:

 

Abstract

Although privacy and surveillance affect different populations in disparate ways, they are often treated as monolithic concepts by journalists, privacy advocates, and researchers. Achieving privacy is especially difficult for those who are marginalized in other areas of life. This special section interrogates what privacy looks like at the margins, investigating a broad spectrum of issues, methodologies, and contexts. Many make an intervention into mainstream theories of privacy and surveillance, showing how examining the experiences of individuals outside the normative White, American, middle-class subject often complicates assumptions about how privacy operates. Others examine the mundane and the banal to analyze how power relations play out in everyday life. By incorporating research outside the canon of privacy research, and by advocating for projects that discuss more diverse conceptualizations of “the user” or the subject, we can envision a future for privacy scholarship that incorporates a wider set of harms and needs and encompasses the concerns of a larger base of citizens.

 

Privacy and Privilege

As data-based systems become increasingly ubiquitous, and companies that people entrust frequently fail to protect personal data, the lines between choice, circumstance, and coercion grow increasingly blurry. Instead, what becomes most important is that how much privilege individuals have significantly affects their ability to weather the storm presented by a data breach or data abuse. Privacy scholarship has significantly increased alongside the rise of data-driven technologies, with legal scholars and humanists working with social scientists and computer scientists to interrogate what privacy means, how people experience privacy, and what technical and legal structures are needed to protect privacy. Yet, by and large, most of this work has treated people universally, under the assumption that all people experience privacy equally. Given our work with young people marginalized by a wide variety of circumstances, we question that assumption.

 

Not only does privacy differ across broad national and linguistic cultural differences, but it also differs within communities depending tremendously on context, subject position, and the dynamics of any given interaction. In short, the role of power is ever present. Whole classes of people who have been systematically and structurally marginalized (e.g., LGBTQ communities, people of color, immigrants, low-income communities, people with disabilities, youth and elders, and those from religious minorities, to name but a few) experience privacy differently from those who hold some semblance of privilege within a given society.

 

Purpose of the Special Section

The purpose of this special section is to interrogate what privacy looks like at the margins. The articles collected in this special section cover a broad spectrum of issues, methodologies, and contexts. Many make an intervention into mainstream theories of privacy and surveillance, showing how examining the experiences of individuals outside the often-studied White, American, middle-class subject often complicates our assumptions about how privacy operates. Others examine the mundane and the banal to analyze how power relations play out in everyday life. By incorporating research outside the canon of privacy research, and by advocating for projects that discuss more diverse conceptualizations of “the user” or the subject, we can envision a future for privacy scholarship that incorporates a wider set of harms and needs and encompasses the concerns of a larger base of citizens.

 

Read the full series of articles from the International Journal of Communication: “Special Section on Privacy at the Margins.”

 


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