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Author: Emma Brice

Privacy in the Digital Age: Is it ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ or ‘I’ve got nothing to hide’?

Updated Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Emma Brice's PhD asks the question: have technological developments changed how we view and understand privacy in contemporary society? This was inspired by how we, as a society, talk about privacy and privacy loss.

This content is associated with The Open University's Psychology courses and qualifications.

Today, developments in technology coupled with the increased use of ‘big data’ for commercial and political purposes, mean that we are living through a shift in how privacy is understood and how it relates to citizenship. We are increasingly being known and valued through our online data: our likes, clicks, posts, purchases and searches. This datafication of citizens enables potential influence to be exerted through political and consumer micro-targeting, but it also has ramifications for the public and private sphere – how we understand ourselves as individuals within society. Data can be used in unprecedented ways to influence our lives, and as a result, new questions about privacy need to be addressed.

Over time, we appear to have acclimatised to the accumulation and storage of our personal information. In fact, it is key for some government services (e.g., NHS, HMRC) and internet-based commercial services (e.g., banks, social networking and shopping sites). Personal data that is accrued by many internet search engines, shopping sites and social networking sites is then sold. In the case of most of these services, this is carried out with the consent of the individuals concerned – but there have been debates about the validity and extent of this consent. When we search our medical symptoms, 'like' a photo or tweet, look up flights or view a video, we add to a massive pool of Big Data over which we, as individuals, can command little if any control. 

A phone and a pencil on a desk

In 2013, Edward Snowden, an American privacy activist, computer professional and former government contractor, leaked information gathered during his time at the United States National Security Agency (NSA). The information revealed numerous global surveillance and data collection programs run by the NSA and the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) with the cooperation of telecommunications and internet corporations. The collection and storage of data raises questions about individual consent, the neutrality of the data collected, the commodification of data and the use of psychographics. At the core of these issues is data privacy as it is our notions of what privacy means and the value it holds that are relied on when making arguments about privacy. 

In 2018, Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company, allegedly harvested data from over 80 million Facebook users’ profiles, which were utilised to target users with personalised political advertisements. This data was then used by data analytics firms such as Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ to produce targeted posts and advertisements, using profiling algorithms, in an attempt to sway voters. Some advertisements/posts were not identified as being political, and all were inserted into users’ news feeds without their explicit consent. This has ramifications with regards to privacy and citizenship due to the usage of profile information and the alleged manipulation of political outcomes. Although massive amounts of personal data are still being collected every day, there has been little public outcry in the UK about the surveillance revelations and subsequent changes to the law and the data mining policies of corporations. 

A padlock with a cyber design

The recording and tracking of data shared digitally is not currently talked about as a loss of privacy until that data is perceived to have been abused, as in the cases involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. In my master’s degree research I conducted focus groups in which an interesting ideological conflict frequently occurred between the ‘common sense’ notions of “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”. This fuelled my curiosity about identifying the common-sense ideas that are relied on in contemporary negotiations around privacy in a digital age. 

My PhD research investigates how privacy is constructed, in corporate and government documents, by specialists in technology and privacy and by laypeople (everyday citizens). By looking at how data privacy is talked about, I hope to shed some light on how privacy is understood. A ‘social constructionist’ approach to the subject enables me to consider the idea of privacy as built through ‘how’ privacy is talked about by us all, rather than having a consistent and concrete definition that exists outside of everyday interaction. It allows me to look at how current cultural valuations of privacy are relied on, and the possible impact of that on our conduct as individual citizens in daily life.


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