On 8 December 2021, A. Mols will defend her PhD dissertation, entitled: ‘Everyday experiences of privacy and surveillance: Negotiating appropriate forms of monitoring’.
On an ordinary Wednesday evening, a family is about to have dinner. Meanwhile, the father receives WhatsApp messages from the neighbourhood crime prevention group, the mother checks the student tracking system of the youngest son, and the daughter instructs a smart speaker to play music. In this scenario, personal information of the family members is collected, processed and shared. In other words; they are the subject of surveillance. The smart speaker collects data for commercial purposes, the mother processes information to support her son, the father is connected to a group of neighbours who keep an eye out on the street (and one another). It seems that the family members don't care about privacy and trade it for safety, control, and convenience.
However, the dissertation of Anouk Mols shows that everyday experiences of privacy and surveillance are more complex. The research is based on interviews with a 100 respondents about the use of WhatsApp for security and work communication, smart technologies, and parental control tools. On a daily basis, people negotiate what forms of surveillance they find (in)appropriate and respond accordingly. They are constrained in these negotiations by a lack of transparency about data collection, and limited influence on surveillance practices. This study leads to the conclusion that tangibility is key to increasing awareness of and resilience in privacy and surveillance practices. Making complex surveillance issues and privacy solutions tangible via metaphors, examples, and visible markers, enables people to better identify surveillance practices and to apply privacy-preserving measures.
We asked Anouk a few questions about her dissertation.
Why did you decide to write your dissertation on this subject?
When reading about privacy, I often felt that many theories fail to grasp the complexities of everyday situations. For myself I was concerned about privacy and the consequences of surveillance, but I still used commercial services like WhatsApp and an online banking application. Theories like the privacy paradox might explain one particular exchange of privacy for one particular goal (e.g., convenience, safety, or public health) but do not take a full social context into account. And while I conducted the planned research for the ‘Mapping Privacy and Surveillance Dynamics in Emerging Mobile Ecosystems’ my focus shifted more and more towards the practices and negotiations people engage in when using technologies like WhatsApp, smart speakers, and parental control tools on a daily basis. Therefore, I decided to make these personal experiences the focus of my dissertation.
What were your expectations at the start of the process? How do you look back upon it?
I expected to learn mainly about how people use technologies, but I did not expect to learn a lot about their personal lives and how they interact with others. I look back on a challenging process which was also a lot of fun and during which I learned so much more than I anticipated. It is very special when people make time for you and share their experiences and perceptions and I hope to represent these well in my dissertation.
What is the most interesting result of your research?
The fact that the people I interviewed mainly perceive privacy and surveillance when these become tangible. This can either be because they are confronted with the fact that they are being monitored – for instance when someone asks them why they read their message on WhatsApp but did not respond, or because they are concerned about material privacy risks. For example, when it comes to smart speakers, professionals warn for security risks around data collection and identity theft, but the interview respondents were more concerned about someone hacking their smart speaker to break in to their house. Such concerns indicate that to create more awareness and resilience around privacy and surveillance, it is worthwhile to make risks tangible through examples and metaphors.