Privacy is not the standard

Last week I took my turn to facilitate a workshop to begin our ethics class. As we split the class in half, I took my group of four, plus two guest alumni for a 30-minute adventure into a portion of the readings that I found personally interesting.

This article by Josephine Wolff highlighted how location data falls into a “nebulous category” when it comes to our rights. There was one section in the beginning of the article that stuck out to me.

Facilitation 11.12.19 quote

The term “reasonable expectation of privacy” sounded every bit as nebulous as the location data she was talking about. So I decided to mold my facilitation around this concept.

To stay in theme, I held the workshop in the only closed door room we have in the school studio to give an extra layer of privacy as we talked about privacy. I opened the discussion by asking “what does privacy mean to you?” Some ideas that came back were “anonymity,” “safety,” and “passwords.” Then we discussed how often we even think about privacy. It comes to mind when you take a phone call and walk away from the crowd. Or when you go behind closed doors at the office to speak with management. But aside from a few instances where we actively seek it out, most of us put it to the wayside. If  you are reading this from the comfort of  your home, I bet you are assuming a certain degree of privacy as well.

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workshop handout

Next, I  handed out a “privacy-o-meter” diagram and asked everyone to label where they would rank certain situations as they pertain to their expectation of privacy. Situations like “publishing your browser history on Facebook” was unanimously not considered private, but ideas like “your location being used while using Maps” was viewed as much less of a privacy invasion. Everyone then charted their responses via color-coded marker on the white board to build out an affinity diagram. It enabled me to probe people who were outliers and why they felt differently than the rest of the group and unearth some feelings and views about privacy.

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affinity diagram of workshop responses

To round out the workshop, we dove into our phones.  We each took out our phones (by request I asked for my group to be all Apple users to make this work) and counted the apps that requested our location services and if they were granted the status of never, ask for permission, only when using, or always. We had a range of 15 to 67 apps that use location data, with a variety of permissions granted. This exercise opened the eyes to a lot of people about just how many apps use your location and at what time. Many of us had an app using our location during the workshop. This fed into the question of “what is a reasonable expectation of privacy?” If we have a multitude of apps that follow us while in our pocket or purse, how private do we really feel?

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everyone dug into how many apps use their location and what the setting was

When I was exploring this myself while thinking about the facilitation, I stumbled deeper into the rabbit hole and found even more location info that I didn’t particularly like. For those of you reading who would like to follow along on your iPhone we are in Settings>Privacy>Location Services to show you the list of apps using your location and their current permission. To dig deeper, go to the bottom and go to Settings>Privacy>Location Services>system Services>Significant Locations to see where you’ve been lately.  The list of toggles to turn on and off lack any information of what you are about to deactivate, which felt purposefully vague. If you are sitting at home, there is a good chance someone knows that.

screenshots of apps using location services, unknown toggles, and a unsettling history of my whereabouts
screenshots of apps using location services, unknown toggles, and a unsettling history of my whereabouts

For me, this was all an exercise in realization that my data is not as private as I might think, and I wanted to share that with the group. I’ve willingly given permission to these apps to know where I am simply for the ease of use and comforts they provide. As a group, we debated about how Google Maps allows us to travel faster and avoid traffic jams, making our life easier and more enjoyable, and how instances like this fall into the dilemma of privacy. It’s a catch-22 that technology has forced us into, and one we simply need to keep it front of mind as we move forward as designers.

For the workshop, in hindsight I would have done a few things differently. For starters, I feel as though I rushed into the program without properly settings the stage. As I work on storytelling as a tool, I think this was a missed opportunity to set the table for what was to come in the next 30 minutes. The other area I wish I had flushed out better were the transitions from exercise to exercise. A closing question to move us from thoughts about to privacy into the meter activity, and then a pointed discussion about our phones and locations would have served well to move us into the phone exercise.

I’m looking forward to a deeper dive into privacy in the coming weeks of ethics,  and I’m making sure to think deeply about it the next time an app asks to use my location. Thank you for reading. – Kyle