“Don't Take it Personal”

Privacy and information in an algorithmic age


Like many of his peers, Peter uses Facebook to stay in contact with family and friends and to exchange information and ideas. Facebook, like most other digital platforms, keeps track of Peter’s personal profile, preferences, and interactions – and provides him with relevant, personalized information based on his activities. Facebook is primarily interested in Peter’s personal information as an instru-ment for aggregation and creation of patterns for marketing purposes. Regarding their collection of personal information, Facebook essentially tells Peter: “Don’t take it personal”. For Peter, however, it may be more complicated than Facebook purports it to be. For Peter, the collection of personal information and algorithmic profiling of him might indeed feel and become personal on many different levels, and he might indeed take it personal that the information he produces seems to be beyond his reach and control.

It is precisely this apparent disconnect between platform providers’ framing of personal information and privacy on one hand, and users’ understanding of the same concepts, on the other hand, that is of interest to this project. The notions of personal information and privacy have often been addressed as intertwined, as tightly connected concepts where one constrains the other. That is, current theories and discussions of informational privacy are closely related to a specific notion of personal information, with privacy being conceptualized as the ability to control and/or restrict access to personal information. In this project, we question that prevailing understanding of the relationship between privacy and personal information, and suggest that revised conceptualizations are needed in order to capture and address current challenges. Given this claim, our guiding overall research question is: what constitutes ‘privacy’ and ‘personal information’ and how are these concepts related and interdependent in an algorithmic age? We address this question by posing two somewhat overlapping conceptual questions, while we also empirically explore users’ and platform providers’ framings and understandings of privacy and personal information, as illustrated in Table 1: Research Design.

The aim of the project is thus two-fold: First, it seeks to understand the nature of PERSONAL INFORMATION in an algorithmic age of increased personalization and data-driven logic claiming that the meaning of personal information is created in specific contexts and in use.  Second, presuming that current conceptions of privacy are challenged by their close ties to the notion of personal information, the project aims to establish what constitutes PRIVACY given contemporary logics of datafication and connectivity.  Both conceptual questions are supported and informed by collection and analyses of data about: i) USERS’ understandings of profiling and how and when platforms’ collection of information about them becomes personal and potentially privacy invasive, and ii) PLATFORM PROVIDERS’ framing of personal information and privacy, and the relation to regulatory frameworks.