Digital or information privacy is a difficult concept to define. It relates to the accessibility of personal information. Services such as Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp harvest our personal data for commercial gain and users seem happy to participate. The development of services that rely on surveillance and users’ responses to these services has challenged the traditional definition of privacy. Information systems scholars have offered some guidance. Bélanger and Crossler (2011)1 define privacy as “the desire of individuals to control or have some influence over data about themselves”. Smith et al. (2011)2 explore definitions of privacy as a right or as a commodity. They argue that the traditional view of general privacy as a human right is ill-suited to the commercial world and that within this context a privacy paradox is observed between a user’s expressed wishes for privacy and their contradictory consumer behaviours.

This privacy paradox phenomenon refers to a user’s express wish for digital privacy while willingly revealing personal information online32. Following this observation, it is useful to think of privacy as a commodity4 in which it is not considered an absolute value, but can be assigned an economic value. Privacy benefit is a related concept and refers to the rewards gleaned from providing personal information to firms, including financial gain and personalization of services 25. If an individual thinks their interactions with a firm will result in the unwanted release of their personal information it is referred to as privacy risk6. Based on the success of Facebook and Google, it is reasonable to conclude that users perceived privacy benefit far outweighs their concerns over privacy risk. But to what extent are general users aware of the erosion of their privacy? In order to answer that question, we should consider the specific modes of collection being employed.

Carsten Sørensen
Carsten Sørensen, 20117

Commercial data collection companies are becoming increasingly invasive. Cookies and similar tracking artefacts are routinely placed on user’s devices and facilitate the collection of large amounts of behavioural data. Keyboard and mouse input are recorded along with the recording of conversations through laptop and smartphone microphones and images are captured using devices cameras8. In the early 2000s when these practices were emerging there was little effort employed to inform the user of the level of tracking taking place. Over time the major smartphone platforms introduced notifications and explicit opt ins so that users had to agree before services or apps could record data using smartphones location capabilities, microphone or cameras. Based on this, it is reasonable to conclude that users are informed as to the extent their digital activates are being recorded.

Zuboff (2019)9 argues that despite these opt in practices users privacy is being forcibly eroded. She recalls the philosopher Roberto Unger’s warning of “the dictatorship of no alternatives” and argues that users have no choice but to cede their privacy in order to avoid practical digital exclusion regardless of the level of digital risk or privacy benefit.

She goes on to discuss existing digital concepts such as ‘digital ubiquity’ through the lens of surveillance capitalism and introduces the concepts of ‘digital instrumentarianism’, ‘instrumentarian power’ and ‘radical indifference’. I’ve examined these concepts in the next blog post.

Next: The Four Horsemen

  1. Bélanger, F., Crossler, R.E., 2011. Privacy in the Digital Age: A Review of Information Privacy Research in Information Systems. MIS Q. 35, 1017–1041. ↩︎

  2. Smith, H.J., Dinev, T., Xu, H., 2011. Information Privacy Research: An Interdisciplinary Review. MIS Q. 35, 980-A27. ↩︎

  3. Dinev, T., 2014. Why would we care about privacy? Eur. J. Inf. Syst. 23, 97–102. ↩︎

  4. Fuchs, C., 2012. The Political Economy of Privacy on Facebook. Telev. New Media 13, 139–159. ↩︎

  5. Caudill and Murphy 2000; Hann et al. 2008; Phelps et al. 2000; Xu et al. 2010 ↩︎

  6. (Featherman and Pavlou 2003; Malhotra et al. 2004) ↩︎

  7. Sørensen, C., 2011. Enterprise Mobility: Tiny Technology with Global Impact on Work [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 1.15.19). ↩︎

  8. Sipior, JaniceC., Ward, BurkeT., Mendoza, RubenA., 2011. Online Privacy Concerns Associated with Cookies, Flash Cookies, and Web Beacons. J. Internet Commer. 10, 1–16. ↩︎

  9. Zuboff, S., 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books. ↩︎