Researching Privacy in a Networked World

Led by iSchool professor Jessica Vitak, PEARL research seeks 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.

So why exactly is this so important?

In 2018, we probably don’t need to tell you why studying the intersection of privacy, security, ethics, and technology is important. Instead, we’ll let some recent headlines speak for themselves:

  • 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]

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) like the apps and services referenced in the headlines above are revolutionizing how we interact with friends, strangers, organizations, and institutions. Using mediated channels for communication and relationship maintenance has burgeoned in the last decade, in large part due to the ubiquitous nature of social media and cell phones. As people increasingly live their lives in increasingly networked spaces with boundaries between public and private disclosures often blurred, critical questions regarding online privacy have emerged. In particular, academics and the media have focused on the persistence and visibility of information shared online, one’s audience and effects of context collapse, and the apparent inability to erase one’s online past.

Following 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, 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.