The Privacy Exchange

During the last two weeks of our ethics course, our class explored privacy, identity, and the nature of consent in practice. Last Thursday, it was my turn to facilitate discussion surrounding these topics. As part of my facilitation, I developed a workshop which was attended by half of the class, our ethics instructor, Diana, and former theory instructor, Scott. My goal was to create an environment where this group could confront their relationship to privacy and its exchange while exploring the consequences that can follow.

Activity 1. Personal Privacy

To begin examining our relationship to privacy, I prompted the question, what is private to you?

 I invited the room to identify and write down the elements of their lives that they keep private from different groups. Groups included the government, consumer businesses, financial institutions, strangers, friends and family, and employers.

Think about the content you keep private. What do you seek to conceal from these entities or people?

 Do you want…

  • Financial institutions to know your political affiliation, mental health history?
  • The government to know your sexual preference, read your personal conversations?
  • Strangers to have your social security number, phone number?

After the group explored the contents of their lives that they keep sacred, we moved towards the concept of passwords. Inherent in privacy, are the passwords which protect it.

Our email accounts (and their passwords) can often be considered gatekeepers to the private content we seek to protect. I suggested the group hold onto this idea as we began activity two.

Activity 2. Exchange

The group shifted their attention to the whiteboard as I introduced a game centered around privacy, discovery, and exchange.

The goal: Understanding what players are willing to exchange for their email password.

In this game, players were set to win one prize. Prizes were divided into four levels: standard, premium, luxury, and life-changing. Players would start at level one, select one of four tiles, and win a prize. At the hope of winning a better prize, players could trade up to the next level as they wished.

At each new level, however, players had to give up greater amounts of their (hypothetical) email password. The longer one played, the better the chance of receiving the best prize, but the closer their password was to being compromised.

In this game, a player’s email password was 12 characters long. Each level cost three characters of their password. Upon reaching the last level, a player’s entire password was compromised.

Players could stop at any time, but no matter how long they played, I kept whatever piece of their password they had given up.

Ultimately, two people decided to play. A bit apprehensive, the first person to play stopped after level one. She earned a “bottle of wine” in exchange for one-fourth of her password. (*Luckily there was some actual wine in the room to go around). Drawn in by curiosity and potential benefit, another person played all the way to end – I had their password in its entirety.


This led us to activity three.

Activity 3. Exposure

Upon completing the game, I challenged the group to examine the ways in which we use our email accounts and what they have access to.

Imagine the connection between your email and browser – every site you visit – person, business, and institution you interact with. What of the information you’re hesitant to share is exposed if your account becomes compromised?

Returning to activity one, the group was instructed to highlight the private content (they previously wrote down) and imagine what I now have access to. Whether I had part of one’s password or the entire thing, what content is placed at risk?


Activity 4. Consequence

 This reflection moved us into a discussion around the consequences of data exposure. As a group, we explored immediate consequences for the individual, such as identity theft and spam, but also the greater consequences for society.

I placed the activity one worksheets into a bin labeled “private database.” As a society, what can happen when our data is shared and harvested? The group discussed manipulation tactics, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the exploitation of consent, and the potential for discrimination.

We took to the whiteboard and visualized how our data might be used by companies and institutions to exploit us. We discussed how entities can use this data to make assumptions about us – predict our behavior (e.g. likeliness to travel to Vegas), influence our behavior (e.g. demobilize voters), and discriminate against us (e.g. increase interest rates).


 The workshop concluded on the topic of the value of meaningful discussion. Before we can discuss how to change this system, we must be honest about our relationship with privacy, both individually and as a society. As designers, we must develop a shared vocabulary to better understand privacy in the context of our lives and in relation to technology – this is how we can begin to address a system that exploits that relationship.

Reflection as a Facilitator.

Facilitation is both a guided conversation and a balancing act. As a facilitator, it’s your role to strike the balance between keeping the group on topic or maintaining structure and serendipity or free-flowing discussion. The facilitator must allow the tangent to happen, but get the team to the goal in the end. This relies on the facilitator’s intuition and reaction – the ability to read the room and shift the energy within it.

Artboard Copy 4

Throughout this process, I found myself viewing the role of facilitator to that of the research interviewer. I recognized this relationship as I tapped into the same strategies that I’ve applied when conducting interviews in the field.

Research interviews are one on one, and in a different context than group facilitation, but a guided conversation all the same. They are both led-discussions with a specific goal and set of topics to cover. As a facilitator and interviewer, one has to create the structure, sense energy, pivot as necessary, and explore breakthrough moments. Finding the balance between structure and serendipity seems essential to both.

Below you can also find a few tactics from the feedback I received for structuring facilitations in the future.

  • Open with a goal; create the context
  • Offer wayfinding methods for the group; create a visual reference for the goal we are working towards with each activity
  • Print instructions for games ahead of time; ground games and activities around goals
  • Introduce metaphors to distill complex information
  • Prompt with questions and tease out conversation
  • Take the time to be conclusive; boil down key takeaways
  • When describing your facilitation to those not involved, talk more about outcomes, less about outputs
  • Set the tone for the environment you want to create – wine and cheese are usually always a good idea

If you have additional thoughts on the role of the facilitator, recommendations for finding balance, or suggestions regarding any of the activities listed above – please reach out to me!