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The Privacy Advisor | Designing for the Different Kinds of Publics Related reading: Op-ed: Ad tech should look into differential privacy



What if there were a graph on the wall of your office, making it clear which employees email each other most often? Would your team see that as a privacy invasion?

Judith Donath opens the IAPP Privacy Academy and CSA Congress.

Judith Donath opens the IAPP Privacy Academy and CSA Congress.

Judith Donath, Harvard Berkman Fellow and author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online, argues that such a chart would actually be privacy-enhancing. Even though it might be slightly embarrassing for employees to have their communication habits broadcast for all to see, it would also be a reminder to them that their email is not, in fact, private. The company has every right to read their emails on a regular basis, should they choose.

“People might feel it’s no longer private, but it’s not private anyway! You think of your job as a private space,” Donath argued as the opening keynote here at the IAPP Privacy Academy and CSA Congress on September 18, “but actually it’s a public space. It’s a surveillance space.”

And with that, she launched into a thought-provoking discussion of the different “publics” that people experience on a daily basis and how technological advancements are changing and warping perceptions of public and private.

“What’s the difference,” she wondered, “between being under surveillance and being in public?”

When you’re in public, you know you’re in public, and you act accordingly: dressing a certain way, guarding your information. When you’re under surveillance, you’re unaware that you’re not, in fact, in a private space, and so your guard is not up. Donath argued that companies and technologies need to do a better job of designing to make it clear to consumers when they’re in what they might consider to be a public space if they were better aware.

“You can call it a chilling effect,” she said, “but it’s more about understanding the mores of where you are. You see how other people act, and you’re able to pick up on rapidly changing mores of behavior” when you understand the space you’re in.

Technology can fundamentally change your interpretation of your space. Should facial recognition via a device like Google Glass become commonplace, you would find yourself in a private space far less often. Suddenly, everyone in the restaurant knows your name, maybe has seen family photos, the comments you’ve made on Yelp. Similarly, a device like the Kindle or your phone has made your reading habits on the train, she noted, much more private. No longer can people see the novel you’re reading or the newspaper article you’re interested in.

In the future, will the acceptance of new technologies be drastically affected by how they fit with consumers’ expectations of public and private spaces?

“How do we design interfaces so there’s an intuitive understanding of how public or private a space is?” Donath wondered. “It’s all about understanding what your boundaries are.”


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