Privacy Online: What Have We Learned so Far?

Report of an interdisciplinary conference that took place at the University of Hohenheim from May 16 to May 17.

Privacy online: What have we learned so far? To answer this question, several international privacy scholars came together in order to present, exchange, and discuss their most important insights regarding privacy and online contexts. In what follows, we present some of the conference’s key insights!

The conference began with a welcome by Prof. Dr. Karsten Hadwich, Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences. Afterward, Prof. Dr. Sabine Trepte also welcomed the speakers and participants, giving an overview about the research project Transformations of Privacy. As a special highlight, Tobias Dienlin read out a welcome note by the renowned privacy scholar Irwin Altman, in which he addressed all delegates, encouraging everyone when researching privacy online to focus explicitly on aspects of interpersonal communication.

Design, control, paradoxes, and theory

The first keynote speaker was Woodrow Hartzog, Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University School of Law. He shared his results about the future of privacy and design rules from a law perspective and pointed out that the design of technology is paramount: Hartzog argued that design is everything, that design is power, and that design is political. Hartzog stated that control has mostly evaporated. As countermeasures, he encouraged to implement obfuscation, to regulate design in order to increase autonomy, and to think about our online affiliations in terms of trust relations.

In her talk about Privacy and Control, Sabine Trepte elaborated on several of Hartzog’s positions. She concluded that in some aspects, e.g. anonymity on social networking sites, users still have some control. But for others aspects such as persistence of information or association of content users have lost most of their control. As additional (and non-exclusive) alternative to control, Sabine Trepte argued that users should engage in mutual communication, thereby creating trust and norms that can help foster privacy on social networking sites.

Paula Helm from the Goethe-University Frankfurt focused on Paradoxes of Privacy, presenting several results of her research. According to Helm, privacy practices show several inherent normative paradoxes. As illustration, she offered an example from South Africa, where the government publicly shared data of household water consumption to save water. However, it turned out that the surplus was sold to more affluent people, who were thereby able to maintain their swimming pools – which, somewhat ironically, was detected from publicly available Google satellite images.

Dr. Katharina Bräunlich from the University of Koblenz-Landau continued with a presentation about Privacy and Theory and the Interdisciplinary Privacy Model. The model is a joint collaboration from all partners of the project “Strukturwandel des Privaten”. It differentiates four different elements: (a) communication context, (b) protection needs, (c) threat and risks, and (d) protection enforcement.

Self-hood and developmental aspects

The next speaker, Lemi Baruh from Koç University, Istanbul, focused on Privacy and Self-Hood. Baruh pointed out that big data affects self-hood by changing (and in most cases reducing) individual agency in so-called micro-moments and liminal states. Moreover, Baruh argued that social score systems (as implemented in for example China) can have substantial effects on people’s self-images and self-concepts.

In the second keynote, Sonia Livingstone gave an overview on Privacy and (psychological) Development. She reminded participants that there is no separate Internet for kids. Instead, from an early age on children are using the very same services as adults. Problems are also the same: Short-term gratifications are often preferred over long-term risks. According to Livingston, studying privacy and Internet use of young people is crucial: Being the canaries in the coalmine, better understanding how young people use the Internet will give researchers a headstart for a more general understanding of risks and benefits as well as use practices.

IT, trust, personalization, and self-disclosure

Day two of the conference began with a keynote about Privacy and IT. Christoph Sorge from the Saarland University argued that privacy can be negatively affected by devices that are connected to the Internet (known as the Internet of Things). Specifically, so-called smart electricity meters can give away tremendous amounts of personal information about its users (for example, what movie is currently being watched). But Sorge also revealed that there exist several mechanisms to safeguard privacy – however, at this point both users and policy makers are confronted with the challenge to actually implement them in an effective way.

Speaking of which, trust is another a central factor that should be implemented more explicitly. In the next talk, adopting a legal perspective Johannes Eichenhofer from the University of Bielefeld offered several concrete options on how to implement trust into privacy-related exchanges between users, government agencies, and corporate companies. For example, and next to many other aspects that were mentioned, Eichenhofer asked to differentiate explicitly between trust in other people and trust in the government.

Nadine Bol from Tilburg University continued with questions about Privacy and Personalization. She presented research in which she and her research team from the University of Amsterdam were able to show that personalization indeed does take place. The researchers produced compelling evidence by logging the behavior of Dutch Internet users (who installed a browser plugin), evidencing that respondents indeed saw different adverts. Bol finished by asking several normative questions, for example, who is the winner and who is the loser of increasing online personalization?

The final panelist, Philipp Masur from the University of Mainz, focused on Privacy and Self-disclosure. He asked several important theory-oriented questions: What is a situation, what is an environment, and what is a context? He posited that a situation consists of all currently available influences, including both external and internal ones. His main take-away was that researchers should increasingly address, understand, and research privacy from a situational perspective.

Politics influence privacy

The last keynote speech of the conference was delivered by Colin Bennett from the University of Victoria, Canada. As a political scientist he gave a summary about the influence of Politics on Privacy – and vice versa. Among other things he emphasized that when it comes to determining elections, a pivotal role is played by so-called micro-targeting. However, Bennett also argued that micro-targeting has always been taking place and that it even can be seen as a means of political deliberation. However, big data mechanisms now have made micro-targeting increasingly powerful. He concluded that at least by now politicians have finally understood the actual value of privacy.

Tobias Dienlin closed the conference by summarizing the main results of both days (on the basis of which this summary was drafted), while also leveraging a call to action that researchers should now dare to move on and to share all these insights about privacy online with the public – preferably using powerful images, several of which were presented at the conference.

We like to thank everyone involved for such an inspiring conference!

Sabine Trepte, Tobias Dienlin & Marie-Claire Gödde

The conference was organized by Sabine Trepte and Tobias Dienlin from the Department of Media Psychology, University of Hohenheim. It was funded and supported by the Volkswagen Foundation.