Why does technology present so many privacy problems?

Consider the following facts:

What is it with technology that makes these kinds of privacy breaches so common?

The importance of physical objects in privacy

We recruit physical objects to prop up our privacy. Doors, walls and curtains help us control access to information by obscuring the view into private space. Sometimes, objects are used to indicate a purely symbolic boundary, as in the case of a window. In public or shared spaces, we recruit physical objects to demarcate space we claim as private. Yoga class participants carry out this process by placing their mat on a carefully chosen spot. New arrivals to the class know that space is now “taken” by another student.

An office with walls and a door is less accessible than a mere desk – even when the office door is open. Fictional news reporter Les Nessman illustrated this by painting yellow lines on the carpet around his desk. Visitors to his “office” were asked to pantomime knocking on the “door.”

Figure 1: Les Nessman answering his “door”


The physical context of information tells us how private that information is intended to be. A piece of paper sitting in plain view suggests it is not private information. But that place that same piece of paper in a folder, and shut it in a drawer and the information is clearly intended to be private. The physical context itself connotes the nature of the information.

In the digital world, we no longer have these physical objects to help us. The digital context lacks the same fidelity of the physical world. Without physical objects to indicate the nature of privacy, digital objects typically are given metadata to indicate their private nature.

Metadata’s primary shortcoming is that it doesn’t relate the object to other objects, thereby robbing the user of a rich source of information. Imagine a photo placed in a frame and set on a piano. Imagine the same photo stuck on a corkboard, next to a mug shot. Imagine it again placed in a shoebox and tucked under a bed. Then imagine this photo posted on Facebook. The human mind quickly intuits the meaning of the object by means of comparing it to other, nearby objects. In the digital realm, objects are stripped of this context. Hashtags or metadata lack the richness of the physical context, and makes it that much more difficult to intuit the private nature of the object.

Ethnography and the importance of attachments and involvements

Elsewhere I have argued that ethnography is one of the best ways to understand how products relate to people and to the world. I argued that Heidegger’s concepts of “attachments” and “involvements” are what ethnographers should be looking for in the field. How does this product fit with other products? How does it fit with with people? You must understand a potential user’s system if you’re developing a product, and ethnography gives you a high-fidelity view into the user’s world.

This is one of the reasons we have so many privacy breaches; digital products were developed without understanding the user’s attachments and involvements, especially those relating to privacy. Sadly, entire business models have been built on users not realizing this fact, and over-sharing their information in a digital space. In the physical world, they might unconsciously recruit physical objects to communicate a high-fidelity privacy desire. We need more systems to integrate this desire, but with authentically digital options.




[1]       A. Westin, Privacy And Freedom, vol. 25, no. 1. New York: Athenum, 1967.

[2]       A. Cerra and C. James, Identity Shift: Where Identity Meets Technology in A Networked Age. Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

[3]       M. Madejski, M. Johnson, and S. M. Bellovin, “The Failure of Online Social Network Privacy Settings,” New York, 2011.

[4]       B. Meeder, J. Tam, P. G. Kelley, and L. F. Cranor, “RT @ IWantPrivacy : Widespread Violation of Privacy Settings in the Twitter Social Network,” in Proceedings of the Web, Vol. 2, 2009.

[5]       T. a. Pempek, Y. a. Yermolayeva, and S. L. Calvert, “College students’ social networking experiences on Facebook,” J. Appl. Dev. Psychol., vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 227–238, May 2009.

[6]       E. Protalinksi, “13 Million US Facebook Users Don’t Change Privacy Settings,” ZDNet News2, 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/facebook/13-million-us-facebook-users-dont-change-privacy-settings/12398. [Accessed: 06-Dec-2013].