Masterclass: Rethinking Data Privacy

On June 2, 2015, Helen Nissenbaum from New York University gave a workshop on “The Elements of Contextual Integrity: Guiding the Empirical Study of Privacy.” Privacy, she argued, is not a right to control, nor a right to secrecy; rather, it is a right to appropriate the flow of personal information. Her discussion focused on what shapes the norms that enable flows of information within specific on/offline contexts. For Nissenbaum, the theory of contextual integrity is a way of understanding the disruptions in the flow of personal information (often stemming from deployment of computational systems and digital media) and how these are experienced as privacy threats, not merely when they expose informational flows or threaten our control but when they result in inappropriate transactions. Contextual integrity becomes a useful normative framework for understanding these disruptions, because, as she argued, it offers: a) an unmuddled way of talking about privacy; b) a diagnostic tool for locating breaches; c) an account of the value of privacy to individuals and societies; d) a practical heuristic to uncover expectations and inform policy and design. Contextual integrity, therefore acts as a mechanism that can provide a means of understanding the gateways and barriers that either facilitate or block that which circulates amongst our myriad on/offline publics.

The appropriateness of flow is modeled by the construct of context-specific norms, which prescribe informational flows based on the parties involved (subjects, senders, recipients), the types of information and the constraints inscribed between parties. Nissenbaum next argued that we must consider the following: 1) Contexts: the structured spheres defined by activities, practices, roles, e.g. healthcare, education, social and home-life, professional life, commercial market place etc.; 2) Informational norms: context specific rules, customs, conventions, expectations, laws, defining appropriate flows of personal information; 3) Purposes and values: Ends, goals, values in a context, both specific and general. Respecting a person’s privacy will therefore depend on the specific context, the norms that govern the context and the purpose or values that are expected within that context. In short, there is no singular way of defining a breach in an individual’s right to privacy given that it will always be dependent on the specific context in which a transgression may occur.

Our interest in Nissenbaum’s work is based on the nuanced way in which she has laid out a theory of privacy. She argues that privacy as contextual integrity is predicated on four principles namely: 1) Privacy means appropriate informational flow; 2) Appropriateness means compliance with social expectations of privacy; 3) Expectations of privacy are modeled by context specific informational norms and 4) Ideal informational norms are those that promote ethical and political principles and contextual ends, purposes and values. Part of the research design for the focus and groups and interviews we held with our YRS co-researchers included in-depth discussion around what privacy means. While Nissenbaum does not fully account for the how social media can bring about a collapse of those clearly defined contexts, thinking through how our participants understood what constituted (non)problematic informational flows was extremely useful and informed how certain questions were formulated.

We’d like to thank Helen for her contributions and for the lively discussion we had during her workshop. If you would like to learn more about what she discussed, please click here and download the slides for her talk.

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