Technology users are failing to take adequate steps to protect their digital privacy

Sep 05, 2008

In the face of technology that will soon be able not only to track an individual's movements but predict them too, people are far too relaxed about protecting their privacy, according to social psychologist Saadi Lahlou, writing in a special issue of Social Science Information on cognitive technologies, published today by SAGE.

According to Lahlou, and other authors in the special issue describing recent experiments, the combination of information and communication technologies and pervasive computing will soon enable continuous monitoring of individual activity, beyond what was imagined by 1984 author George Orwell.

What Lahlou terms "the system" – referring to the mass of interconnected data-collection devices from mobile phones, to internet sites, to surveillance cameras – can search, compare, analyze, identify, reason and predict the movements, motives and actions of individuals, he warns. Even such a transient event as gaze is now traceable by automatic devices.

What is more, if several systems for tracking movement, position or activity are combined – for example, combining GPS information with phone signals or triangulation with wireless internet signals – then individuals stand little chance of being able to hide their position or actions.

"We are creating a system that will be aware of all that we do: when we turn on the washing machine, what we write and to whom, where we go and what we do there, what we buy and when with whom and how we use it … and this virtually from cradle to grave. The system as a whole will know more about us than we know about ourselves," Lahlou writes.

But while many surveys show that such developments leave users concerned about privacy, they are not taking appropriate measures to protect themselves or their data. Lahlou explains this discrepancy by invoking what he calls the "privacy dilemma": the fact that social interaction through new technologies requires disclosure of personal data: information is fed into the system precisely to get better or customized service.

Surveys of system designers also show that although they seem as privacy-concerned as system users, they do not prioritise protection measures in their products, citing reasons such as lack of moral responsibility or the necessity to prioritise maximum efficiency of the system. And, argues Lahlou, because current guidelines – which advise limitation of data collection, protection of collected data, limitation of use to initial purpose, right of access, etc – are negative rather than positive, i.e specifying what designers should not do rather than what they should, they do not help promote respect for privacy into new technologies.

He proposes a new definition of privacy as something he terms "face-keeping": "We all have many faces (combinations of role and status), but each one is used only in some settings," he explains. Privacy breach, Lahlou argues, is being presented with a 'wrong' face, one that is not consistent with the situation (e.g. being seen at work in a family role).

So, reasons Lahlou, given that continuing technological advances will leave few with the option of withholding information about themselves, users' privacy should be protected by employing an approach to design in systems that helps users to wear exactly the face they want to show in the domain at hand and nothing more.

He suggests a constructive approach through the development of positive guidelines for designers, giving them concrete steps to be taken to ensure the protection of users, combined with well thought out limits on the expansion of data collection. "If we want to safeguard privacy, we must turn to limitation of the tracking systems themselves and to legal regulation," Lahlou says. "The face-keeping perspective gives designers a positive goal because they can tailor systems to a very specific set of roles and statuses for the user, instead of following vague instructions for avoiding potential problems."

"We believe a good system should always be on the user's side. Forcing the designers to take the user's point of view in the construction of specifications is one more step in that direction," he concludes.

Source: SAGE Publications

Explore further: Best of Last Week–Variance of gravitational constant, 50 years of Moore's Law and creating the sensation of invisibility

Related Stories

Nepal quake: Nearly 1,400 dead, Everest shaken (Update)

7 hours ago

Tens of thousands of people were spending the night in the open under a chilly and thunderous sky after a powerful earthquake devastated Nepal on Saturday, killing nearly 1,400, collapsing modern houses and ...

Russian hackers read Obama emails, report says

7 hours ago

Emails to and from President Barack Obama were read by Russian hackers last year in a breach of the White House's unclassified computer system, The New York Times said Saturday.

Supermarkets welcome cold-comfort edge of F1 aerofoils

12 hours ago

UK-based Williams Advanced Engineering, the technology and engineering services business of the Williams Group, has collaborated with UK-based Aerofoil Energy to develop an aerodynamic device that can reduce ...

Public boarding school—the way to solve educational ills?

16 hours ago

Buffalo's chronically struggling school system is considering an idea gaining momentum in other cities: public boarding schools that put round-the-clock attention on students and away from such daunting problems as poverty, ...

Recommended for you

Report details benefits of investment in basic research

Apr 27, 2015

Last year was a notable one for scientific achievements: In 2014, European researchers discovered a fundamental new particle that sheds light on the origins of the universe, and the European Space Agency ...

Heinz Awards honors six for solving critical human issues

Apr 23, 2015

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher who has developed artificial human "microlivers" that can safely test the toxicity of drugs without endangering lives is one of six people chosen to receive Heinz Awards.

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ddasedEn
not rated yet Sep 05, 2008
The world is really very very confused & uncertain about the privacy issues and what to do about it. With technology advancing the way it is, and the convergence of technologies in various forms and ways, however, I often find myself repeating a quote we heard some time back: "In this age, how can you expect something called privacy."
Anonymouse
5 / 5 (1) Sep 05, 2008
This article is a good example of blaming the victim. Users aren't taking adequate steps to protect their privacy? Baloney. Our society and technology puts incredible barriers in place that make it hard to protect one's privacy, day in and day out. (Try to go your life without disclosing your SSN to anyone other than the Social Security administration or the IRS. Good luck!)

Sure, it's easy to blame the users and let system designers off the hook, but I think that points the finger in the wrong direction.
WillB
not rated yet Sep 05, 2008
I don't get what's the whole big hubub on privacy? I only see privacy as a way to "stick it to the evil corporations" for creating useful ads. Google doesn't "read you surfing or emails" It takes a computer program and takes key words and matches it with ads that companies buy. No one see's anything.

I'm not a conspiratist type of guy either. I don't believe it the stereotypical government listening in on conversations salivating over who to screw next.

The only thing that does piss me off however, is traffic light surveliance. I end up slowing way down when I come across stoplights because god forbid they catch me speeding when I wasn't quite sure on what the speed limit is. Also almost 100% of the fines by those cameras goes towards public schools I've read. It's so much that cops end up shutting them down because they can't afford to keep them running.

So basically.... I am not troubled by the Privacy issues.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.