Just when we thought the season’s hottest tablet or smartphone picked up on Black Friday might be a new FBI black site, The Economist reports some tech giants are working extra privacy measures into their gadgets to protect user data. By making services like text encryption available by default, this trend provides extra privacy for some users (mostly those who aren’t already targeted for surveillance), despite criticism from law enforcement that it shields criminal networks from investigation. While we usually think about privacy as an individual right to be left alone, social science shows why these trends are important for a public conversation about what privacy should be.
Americans’ emphasis on the right to privacy remains high, and while public opinion did tend to favor increased government surveillance immediately following September 11th, 2001, support for these practices has declined since.
- Samuel J. Best, Brian S. Krueger, and Jeffrey Ladewig. 2006. “Privacy in the Information Age” The Public Opinion Quarterly 70(3): 375-401.
But privacy isn’t just isolation from governments or other people. Classic research argues it is an ongoing social relationship where we negotiate interactions with others, and more current work shows this relationship changes across time and place.
- Irwin Altman. 1975. The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory, and Crowding. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole
- Debbie V.S. Kasper. 2005. “The Evolution (or Devolution) of Privacy.” Sociological Forum. 20: 69-92
Current studies of how people use technology show that privacy concerns kick in when people share information online. It also finds this focus on individual behavior ignores structural privacy concerns about the devices themselves and how people learn to interact with them. The “encrypted by default” trend starts a new conversation about what our shared, social definition of privacy should be.
- Ana Viseu, Andrew Clement, and Jane Aspinall. 2004. “Situating Privacy Online.” Information, Communication, & Society 7(1): 92-114
- Jeffrey T. Child, Paul M. Haridakis, and Sandra Petronio. 2012. “Blogging privacy rule orientations, privacy management, and content deletion practices: The variability of online privacy management activity at different stages of social media use.” Computers in Human Behavior 28: 1859-1872