Martin and Nissenbaum, ‘Privacy of Public Data’

Abstract:
The construct of an information dichotomy has played a defining role in regulating privacy: information deemed private or sensitive typically earns high levels of protection, while lower levels of protection are accorded to information deemed public or non-sensitive. Challenging this dichotomy, the theory of contextual integrity associates privacy with complex typologies of information, each connected with respective social contexts. Moreover, it contends that information type is merely one among several variables that shape people’s privacy expectations and underpin privacy’s normative foundations. Other contextual variables include key actors – information subjects, senders, and recipients – as well as the principles under which information is transmitted, such as whether with subjects’ consent, as bought and sold, as required by law, and so forth. Prior work revealed the systematic impact of these other variables on privacy assessments, thereby debunking the defining effects of so-called private information.

In this paper, we shine a light on the opposite effect, challenging conventional assumptions about public information. The paper reports on a series of studies, which probe attitudes and expectations regarding information that has been deemed public. Public records established through the historical practice of federal, state, and local agencies, as a case in point, are afforded little privacy protection, or possibly none at all. Motivated by progressive digitization and creation of online portals through which these records have been made publicly accessible our work underscores the need for more concentrated and nuanced privacy assessments, even more urgent in the face of vigorous open data initiatives, which call on federal, state, and local agencies to provide access to government records in both human and machine readable forms. Within a stream of research suggesting possible guard rails for open data initiatives, our work, guided by the theory of contextual integrity, provides insight into the factors systematically shaping individuals’ expectations and normative judgments concerning appropriate uses of and terms of access to information …

Martin, Kirsten E. and Nissenbaum, Helen, Privacy of Public Data (November 25, 2016).

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