The Paradox of Privacy: Exploring Cell Phone Tracking and Privacy from the Critical and Psychological Viewpoints

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The Paradox of Privacy: Exploring Cell Phone Tracking and Privacy from the Critical and Psychological Viewpoints

Professors Coventry & Turner


1 December 2009

Kholoud Al-Hajri – ka99

Cara Chibbaro – cnc26

Helen Cho – hc259

Julie Espinosa – je237

Yuan Tian – yt227

Matt Wilson – mw352


In 1989, cell phones were simply portable telephones that were used outside the home, most often in vehicles. The ability to make and receive phone calls was the only functions on the mobile phone; they were not even capable of telling time. However, the last 20 years have brought about rapid changes and developments for cell phones, from its most basic form to become devices that are integral to our lives. Today, cell phones not only make phone calls and tell time, they are also used to send emails, text messages, pictures, surf the web, listen to music, play games, and even as a GPS device.

With these technological advances come various questions about privacy. Although the cell phone has made life easier, has it also become invasive? Many in today’s society have become so dependent on cell phones in their daily lives that it is not readily apparent that the right to privacy may be at stake. Cell phone records can be hacked, as Barack Obama found out in October 2008 and conversations, emails, and text messages can be recorded and kept, unbeknownst to the other party. Although applications like Google Maps and the GPS option on various cell phones can help a cell phone user find directions to their destination, the GPS application can track your whereabouts and make that information available to others.

The privacy issues that became salient in cyberspace are some of the same issues that plague cell phone users, from location tracking to personal identity theft. The following research proposal will investigate the ever-developing world of mobile technologies, particularly the various applications on mobile phones such as mobile-based GPS systems and tracking by cell phone providers, and the associated privacy issues through the psychological perspective and the critical structurational perspective.

Psychological Perspective

The first discipline we would like to use is psychology. We are interested in using a psychological perspective to investigate how people’s privacy concerns about location-based mobile applications vary under different circumstances. As we have learned through the communication theories we studied in 505, such as structuration and enactment theories, the way people use a technology can change that technology’s meaning. A psychological perspective would help explain how perceptions of cell phone tracking technology are built and the subsequent effect this has on the implementation and enactment of the technology. There are many factors that affect people’s attitudes towards location-based cell phone applications, leading to a mix of attitudes. This is not surprising, as disclosing one’s location can be dangerous at times and yet valuable at others. We are interested in how users conceive of this disclosure and are curious about what factors affect individual choice to engage or not engage with applications that pose potential privacy threats.

One question that a psychological perspective might ask with regards to location-based applications is: How does the purpose of the application change people’s privacy concerns? As our research indicated, location-based cell phone tracking was originally designed for use by the 911 emergency response system. However, as the technology developed, its usage became varied. Currently, beyond the personal orientation purpose of location tracking via applications such as Google Maps or Yelp, cell phone tracking technology can also be used to track one’s friends’ and relatives’ locations, for marketing purposes, and for the purposes of criminal investigations. Do individuals react to these purposes differently? Do they feel that some are more invasive of one’s privacy than others?

A second question from the psychological perspective could address the ways in which people’s knowledge about cell phone tracking and its possible privacy threats affect their attitude towards the technology. There are several ways users can obtain detailed information on this issue, whether it is directly from the application or from the cell phone carrier’s terms of service, or indirectly from the media and other users’ expertise. We are interested in the effect that more detailed information about cell phone tracking has on the user’s perceptions of the technology. If users actually read the terms of service, does this affect their decision to opt-in or opt-out of cell phone tracking technology? Without reading these terms, are individuals even aware of the specific purposes for which their location is being used? Additionally, how does media portrayal of cell phone tracking affect perspectives of the technology’s potential privacy threats?

A third psychology question would be whether the type of the information required by a given application influences people’s attitudes. The level of detail about the location in applications vary, which might affect the user’s attitude toward those applications. For example, how do perceptions vary across applications that require an exact address, those that note a generic name for the place such as “at work” or “at home,” and those that simply provide the name of the neighborhood, street, or city?

Some of the current cell phone tracking research focuses on how to minimize the risks on a technological and legal level (Reuver & Haaker; Zhou, et. al.). Additionally, most research addresses the privacy issues concerning the access of location information by other cell phone users, such as the creepy stalker or the controlling parents, but does not incorporate the information accessed by cell phone carriers or the government (Consolvo, et. al.; Khalil & Connelly; Sadeh, et. al.; Ahern et. al.). People’s feelings about and understanding of the deep tanks of personal information held by large corporations and governments are incredibly complex and worth studying.

In addition, current research mostly focuses on information-sharing patterns across social relations and situations. For example, would people feel safer when their locations are only available to the people they know, their family, friends or colleagues? Also, would people at a coffee shop be more willing to disclose their location than people at home? One thing that has not been examined, however, is the difference between users on a demographic level in terms of the awareness and the perceptions of the privacy issues involving cell phone tracking technology.

To help close these research gaps, we would like to conduct a three phase quantitative research both in labs and in-situ.

Phase 1: We will recruit 40 participants, 20 of whom work in privacy-related jobs and 20 of whom have occupations not related to privacy issues. We will design a computer-based survey about people’s attitudes toward disclosing their location for various purposes, to different people or organizations, and the type of information required by the application. Then we send out the surveys to the applicants, and collect and analyze data to see the pattern in privacy preference among these two groups.

Phase 2: We divide both the privacy-related group and the non-privacy related group into three smaller groups by random choice. Then we introduce a made-up location-enhanced cell phone application which contains all the scenarios listed in the first phase survey to the applicants. The introduction materials for Group 1 will contain a long, detailed warning about possible privacy leaks, similar to a cell phone company’s terms of service agreement. Group 2 will receive a short warning about privacy threats, while Group 3 will get no warning instructions. After trying out this new application, another computer-based survey will be sent out to the applicants to ask about their feelings regarding this application and under what scenario they would disclose their location. We will compare the results between each of the three groups and also analyze the results of Group 2 versus Group 1.

Phase 3: Considering the potential difference between lab choices and real behaviors, we would like to distribute cell phones with the location-enhanced application we designed with a set of standard warning instructions and a recording chip to a random community of people and collect data about the people’s choice of location disclosure in different scenarios. We would make diagrams and charts to calculate each of the three outlined aspects of privacy concern and incorporate the demographic information of individuals studied in our findings. We feel that this information would be useful for application designers, consumers and scholars alike.

Critical Structurational Perspective

A critical perspective of mobile technology and privacy, focused on “dynamics of power and politics” (Mumby, 2000, p. 70), might examine the ways individuals understand and construct their everyday lives in relation to tracking technology. Mumby (2000) suggests that in the critical view, individuals actively construct themselves in society through sometimes contradictory ideologies. For the individual using locatable mobile technology, a critical perspective might examine the ways he or she understands privacy against structures of power. Critical research may question the ways smart phone users see their agency with regard to phone tracking applications, and how such technology is seen as encroaching, helpful, or both.

From a broad critical perspective, a structurational view of mobile technology and privacy focuses on how meaning is made in a user’s engagement with technology. From their unique standpoint of power, a cell phone user understands technology and its effect on their privacy in different ways. This occurs dialectally; as Abe (2009) points out, we engage with technology that both enables us to communicate remotely but is at the same time a source of continuous surveillance. Structuration looks beyond the ways a technology’s structure informs its use, seeing instead a “mutual determinism of technology and social structure” (Fulk, 1993, p. 923). As mobile tracking technology emerges, consumers may actually choose to use it—all or in part—in new and undefined ways. In their appropriation of the technology, users give structure to its meaning, value, and purpose. By examining the user’s engagement with a malleable technology construction—their “practice” of technology use—a structurational view sees an “emergent, not embodied” technology structure (Orlikowski, 2000, p. 407).

With regard to a critical perspective, a structurational view of phone tracking technology might examine how mobile phone use reflects beliefs and attitudes of empowerment. The attitudes a phone user holds about tracking applications and privacy can shed light on how they construct and situate themselves against government, business, and other bodies of power capable of tracking their phone. For the locatable phone user, a critical structurational view may examine how they use mobile phone tracking applications in ways that change the technology’s meaning and at the same time structures their self-understanding. Some popular articles have examined the possibility of “jailbreaking” mobile phone tracking technology to circumvent the tracking capability. In this example, a structurational view might ask: how does such a practice speak to the possibility of redefining our understanding of a phone’s threat to privacy? Looking at mobile phone use critically, how might the ability to circumvent tracking technology vary by user demographic? For an individual’s understanding of agency surrounding their privacy, how might different appropriations of mobile phone technology speak to the “meanings, expectations, associations, and conventions” (Orlikowski, 2000, p. 412) users of different demographics attach to the new technology?

While giving consideration to political and social critique, research on communication technology surveillance often centered on its legal ramifications. For example, Solove (2003) discusses disclosure laws to suggest public and private speech is subject to political and social influence. While noting that public and private information are differentiated through media influence, by an individual’s status as a public or private figure, and by the situation of that information in a public or private domain, Solove examines how the two are distinguished through enacted laws (2003). A legal approach to understanding mobile technology and privacy may not account adequately for minority opinions outside a society’s laws. It may also not account for ways individual disregard or circumvent laws in their mobile technology use. Often in the research, what information might be mined from technology users is considered fixed data. Abe (2009), for example, suggests that information potentially available to police is a “technological fact” (p. 78). Such research on privacy and technology use seems to leave little room for a user’s shaping of the information sought from them.

Another gap in the literature we examined was a failure to study individuals as representative of social groups. By examining how a sample demographic uses technology in response to privacy concerns, a structurational view might shed light on how social groups construct each other. Dennis (2008) offers an example of an individual who, after mistreatment by the FBI, began volunteering via mobile phone his personal information and whereabouts to them on a detailed level bordering on absurd. Sacrificing privacy willingly to a power structure was perhaps a “posture of acquiescence as well as obedience,” or “a performance of sly resistance” (Dennis, 2008, p. 9). Nonetheless, one individual’s use of technology offers little that might speak to the social groups to which they belong, which might also enact resistance or acquiescence in mobile phone use. Nor is there further research on the ways dominating technology users show their response to acts of resistance to surveillance. If a “fine line” divides individual willingness to share information from coercion to do so (Dennis, 2008, p. 12), existing research leaves room for a structurational view to understand how mobile technology users—both privacy dominating and resistant—negotiate such a line by shaping the technology.

To study the ways users engage with mobile phone technology with regard to social understandings of privacy, we might interview research participants recruited from socially diverse groups about their attitudes on mobile phone tracking. We would ascertain: the social groups to which a participant belongs; their beliefs about their privacy from phone-tracking groups; their beliefs about privacy rights; their beliefs about how their privacy may change through mobile tracking applications; their current or intended use of mobile tracking technology; and in what situations they might either protect or give up privacy in their mobile phone use. With interview data, we might then use narrative analysis as a way of discovering stock stories and characters in participant responses. Cohen (2000) suggests that rights to private information as personal property seem “linguistically determined” (p. 1379), and a narrative analysis would flesh out the themes from participant responses that construct such rights. In analyzing interview data, common constructions might emerge of information gatherers and of mobile users in the face of privacy threats. For example, a business that tracks mobile phone data may emerge for some participants as an antagonist in a narrative of struggle to save privacy. In a structurational light, our analysis would pay particular attention to how participants describe their use of mobile technology in regard to the way they describe privacy. Analyzing the common ways participants engage with or imagine themselves engaging with tracking technology, we might understand their enactment as driving plots. And in relating participants’ social group memberships to the stories they construct, we might discover protagonists and antagonists in the negotiation of privacy among social groups.

Our group seeks to know more about the implications of new mobile phone technology on a societal understanding of privacy. By studying how mobile phone technology is “enacted” (Orlikowski, 2000) among different social groups, it may be possible to shed light on a social understanding of privacy in a world of new phone capabilities. Abe (2009) points out that “transformation of society cannot and should not be technologically or administratively predetermined” (p. 87). A structurational perspective can help understand how individuals in social groups use technology to resist or accept demands on their privacy, helping to determine new technology.


As our background research suggests, privacy concerns regarding cell phone tracking are varied and inconsistent. Perceptions are undoubtedly changing with the advancement of the technology and it is likely that this change is occurring at a different rate or in a different manner for divergent subsets of the population. Ultimately, the way that these perceptions form will in turn shape the future use and adoption of the technology. Our aim is to map out the ways in which this might occur and to contribute to the ongoing debate about what uses of cell phone tracking technology are and are not acceptable breaches of user privacy. At the bare minimum, we could provide specific starting points for conversation among users of location-based applications, among members of companies and organizations who provide services and collect data via these applications, and—most importantly—conversation occurring at the intersection of the two realms.

We feel that the Communication, Culture and Technology program offers a unique perspective with unique benefits. Specifically, an approach that combines psychology and a critical structuration theory approach would serve to illuminate the issue both from the top-down as well as from the bottom-up. A psychological approach could illuminate the ways in which users react to and perceive given tracking technology—particularly across demographics, while a critical or structurational approach would address the emergent ways users are defining themselves and cell phone tracking technology through their own actions. This would provide both hard and measurable data on the subject as well as observations about the more nuanced and often contradictory lived experience to ultimately offer a more holistic view of the current status of cell-phone tracking privacy issues.

Works Cited

Abe, K. (2009). The Myth of Media Interactivity: Technology, Communications and Surveillance in Japan. Theory Culture Society, 26 (73)

Ahern, S., Eckles, D., Good, N., King, S., Naaman, M., Nair, R. (2007). CHI ‘07: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Over-exposed?: privacy patterns and considerations in online and mobile photo sharing. New York, NY: ACM Press, 357-366.

Cohen, J. E. (2000). Examined Lives: Informational Privacy and the Subject as Object. Stanford Law Review, 52(1373).

Consolvo, S., Smith, I., Matthews, T., Lamarca, A., Tabert, J., Powledge, P. (2005). CHI ‘05: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems. Location disclosure to social relations: why, when, & what people want to share. New York, NY: ACM Press, 81-90.

Dennis, K. (2008). Keeping a Close Watch – The Rise of Self-Surveillance & the Threat of Digital Exposure. Sociological Review, 56 (3), 347 – 357.

Khalil, A. and Connelly, K. (2006). Proceedings of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Context-aware telephony: privacy preferences and sharing patterns. Banff, Alberta, Canada: ACM Press, 469-478.

Mumby, D. (2000). Common ground from the critical perspective: Overcoming binary oppositions. Eds. S. Corman and M.S. Poole, Perspectives on Organizational Communication: Finding Common Ground. The Guilford Press. New York.

Orlikowski, W. (2000). Using technology and constituting structures: A practice lens for studying technology in organizations. Organization Science, 11(4), 404-428.

Reuver, M. and Haaker, T. (2009). Designing viable business models for context-aware mobile services. Telematics and Informatics, 26, 240-248.

Sadeh, N., Hong, J., Cranor, L., Fette, I., Kelley, P., Prabaker, M., Rao, J. (2009). Understanding and capturing people’s privacy policies in a mobile social networking application. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 13, 401-412.

Solove, D. J. (2003). The Virtues of Knowing Less: Justifying Privacy Protections Against Disclosure. Duke Law Journal, 53(967).

Zhou, F., Duh, H. B. L., Billinghurst, M. (2008). Trends in augmented reality tracking, interaction and display: A review of ten years of ISMAR. Mixed and Augmented Reality¸193-202.

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