University of Maryland

Researching Privacy in a Networked World

Led by iSchool professor Jessica Vitak, Privacy Education & Research Lab (PEARL) researchers seek to provide new insights for young people, parents, seniors, and others about best practices for managing their privacy and security when they interact in networked spaces. See the Projects Page for updates on ongoing research studies.

Why study this?

In 2021, we probably don’t need to tell you why studying the intersection of privacy, surveillance, ethics, and technology is important. Instead, we’ll let some recent headlines speak for themselves:

  • Are Apple’s Tools Against Child Abuse Bad for Your Privacy? [NY Times]
  • Your boss is watching: How AI-powered surveillance rules the workplace [Politico]
  • I spy: are smart doorbells creating a global surveillance network? [The Guardian]
  • Cambridge Analytica and the Coming Data Bust [NY Times]
  • U.S. soldiers are revealing sensitive and dangerous information by jogging [Washington Post]
  • Grindr exposed its users’ HIV statuses to two other companies [The Verge]
  • And on and on and on…

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are reshaping the content individuals share, the audiences with whom they communicate, and the entities that collect and analyze personal information. The social and technical affordances of these ICTs simplify the process of growing a large network of connections and interacting through various public and private communication channels. At the same time, however, they blur distinctions between public and private information, making it difficult for even the most skilled users to understand how content moves through systems. The increasing ubiquity of social and mobile raises a number of questions about the privacy and security of data, the knowledge and skills of those using these tools, and the ethical practices of those who interact with data.

Initially inspired by a 2014 call by the White House for more research on privacy as a social science construct and privacy tools for consumers, this lab seeks to enhance our understanding of how people think about and enact privacy-related decisions in various digital spaces. We do this by tackling a range of societal-level problems involving children, families, specific technologies, and core questions around data ownership, privacy, surveillance, and ethics. The underlying goal of all these studies is to provide concrete recommendations for enhancing users’ privacy when sharing personal information online.

Journalists, researchers, or students interested in this research should contact Dr. Vitak at jvitak[at] umd.edu.

  • News

    July 2021: Vitak (along with Sarah Gilbert and Katie Shilton) published “Measuring Americans’ Comfort With Research Uses of Their Social Media Data” in the journal Social Media + Society.

    June 2021: Vitak and Zimmer had an extended abstract summarizing their workplace surveillance & COVID-19 work accepted to AoIR 2021.

    October 2020: Vitak and Zimmer published a study in First Monday on privacy concerns associated with the adoption of contact tracing apps.

    August 2020: Vitak & Zimmer were awarded a Rapid Response grant from SSRC to study how workplace surveillance is evolving due to COVID-19.

    January 2020: Vitak, Clegg, and Chetty were awarded a NSF Small grant for their work on developing privacy & security curriculum for elementary school children.

    May 2019: PhD student Kumar presented research from our kids’ safety project at CHI. The paper discusses how educators consider privacy and security when using digital technologies in the classroom. More info is here.

    March 2019: We won the Lee Dirks Award for Best Full Paper at the iConference! PhD student Liao was the lead author on the paper presenting survey results from our IPA study.