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Privacy in the modern age

Research is going to oversee a trade-off: between those who know the value of their personal data and those who want to access it. So is the industry ready?

"A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all." — Edward Snowden, December 2013

Demise of privacy

Last year was a year in which the issue of data and the digital footprint that we all leave was further brought to the fore, largely by the actions of Edward Snowden, the computer specialist who leaked top-secret NSA documents to a US journalist.

The leaks brought the term "metadata" into all of our thinking. Essentially, metadata is information created while using technology; for example, the date and time you called somebody or the location from which you last accessed your email. On the plus side, it does not generally contain personal information, and so is more transactional in its nature. However, the collation of various streams of metadata can easily be used to identify individuals.

Two separate sides

Though I'm sure we all feel like abandoning our mobile devices from time to time, the job we do demands that we are constantly switched on. So, there are two sides to each of us; the personal self, and the researcher self.

We are all becoming more aware of the amount of data we leave behind online, with many choosing to take the bold step of actively trying to limit their digital footprint, through deletion of their tracks. Though of course, as people are increasingly finding, deletion is not always "true" deletion; many services such as Dropbox simply transfer deleted files to another server, so that they can be restored if needed at a later date. All this information is given to users by law, though how many of us read the terms and conditions?

Accountkiller.com

The website accountkiller.com gives instructions on removing your information from a vast amount of websites, though it has what it terms a "blacklist": sites that do not allow users the opportunity to delete their information. The fact that there are hundreds of sites on this page highlights the scale of the issue facing those who wish to wipe their slate clean.

It is very easy for us all to become suspicious. The government has the technology to activate your phone's microphone to listen in on you, even if you are not on a call, and the camera can be remotely activated to take photos at will.

The research application

There is a lot of negative press at the moment, but if we care to look for them user-generated data has clear opportunities for research.

Many of us, including myself, are always looking at innovative ways to engage respondents, and allow them the best opportunity to provide us with rich output. Many research companies use apps for this, to collect both behavioural and attitudinal data. The passive collection aspect is honest about the data it is transmitting, and secure in its methods of doing so. But what with the recent worries around data leaks involving apps such as Angry Birds, is there a danger that the trust of those we would most like to foster will be lost?

The last thing we want is respondents refusing to take part in research because they are not convinced that their data will be safe once handed over. Trust is a vital part of what we do. It is a permanent part of our script; "you will remain anonymous" is a line that we all recite, and we need to ensure that respondents believe us when we say it.

Taking control

There is a balance of power that has been evident over the past few years. We are slowly realising that it is in our interests to be aware of the data that we are handing over, so that we can use it to our advantage in the future.

Federico Zannier is one such individual, who collated data on himself, and sold it on the Kickstarter website. He offered a day's worth of data for $2, while for $200 or more, buyers could gain access to 50,000 files, which included 2,800 websites he visited, 20,500 screenshots, 17,000 webcam images, a recording of his mouse pointer movements, his GPS location, an application log of 23,000 lines of text, an iPhone app and a Chrome Extension for tracking the buyer's own activity, as well as a suite of tools for analysing the data.

Unforeseen total

Zannier set out to obtain $500, but ended up smashing this target, to achieve $2,733: quite a sum for data that is freely collected by companies and subsequently sold for their own gain.

So, if we are aware of our data, we can begin to use it to help change our lives for the better.

The Quantified Self is a movement that firmly puts the user in control of their data, enabling them to increase their wellbeing. In short, it is self-knowledge through self-tracking. It incorporates technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical). Indeed, with trends such as wearable tech set to increase in 2014, we will be all be generating more data; telling our Fitbit from our MoodPanda will become second nature.

Going forwards

The modern age allows us to have control over our data, and therefore manage our privacy more effectively, but where does research fit into this equation?

In truth, it will be a trade-off; the relationship between researchers and Quantified Selfers will be symbiotic: there are clear benefits for both parties. We, the researchers, will benefit from this new data stream, while those handing over their data will no doubt want to see the results for themselves, so as to use the output to their own advantage.

It is an exciting time to be part of this shifting dynamic; here's looking forward to the coming years.

 

Darren Till
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2014