Privacy On-line:Something must be done / Must something be done ?

Alison Adam (plus co-authors Danijela Bogdanovic, Michael Dowd and Eileen Wattam), School of English, Sociology, Politics and Contemporary History, University of Salford

This abstract was presented at the CRESC Conference 2010

“This paper reflects on the research methods used in an interdisciplinary, multi-partner project on on-line privacy, funded  through a UK Research Council programme. The basis of the  project, resting on the wider programme’s aims, is that there are privacy issues involved in on-line interactions which individuals and on-line service providers do not currently understand and that such issues can be researched and made sufficiently definite such that policy may be created and imaginative solutions, possibly involving software, may be designed.

As the social scientists of the project we identified project participants, drawing from appropriate demographics, and set about organizing and running focus groups, interviews and on-line privacy diaries. Nailing down privacy problems has proved to be difficult. Across a range of ages and on-line experience, our project respondents revealed themselves as expert, often very imaginative users of information and communications technologies well able to handle multiple social, administrative and financial activities on-line most of the time. Did they see on-line privacy as a problem? It is tempting to suggest that they did after we researched them. On-line privacy manifests itself in situated, contingent ways ranging from those who display little concern to those who already have quite heightened concerns in particular contexts where being asked about it possibly reaffirms those concerns. Either way the research acts as a sensitizing device for something which may or may not have been a ‘problem’. However the project, within its wider programme, set against Digital Britain (and Digital Europe) initiatives is part of a substantial hinterland where on-line privacy is seen as a key problem to be solved in the journey towards a Digital Britain. In this paper we reflect on the ways  in which our research methods contribute not just to the articulation of the problem but to the creation of the problem.”