The main goal of the PRIMA project is to provide concrete means to successfully guide and manage privacy in the context of future information and communication technologies. Based on an inter-disciplinary Nordic and North-American network of experts within the disciplines of computer science, social science, and law, this will be achieved by collaboration with related projects in which the partners of the project consortium are active. The main deliverables of the project will be mock-ups and prototypes intended as concrete illustrations of both challenges of privacy in relation to future information technologies, and mechanisms for handling them.

 

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As the penetration of pervasive use of information and communication technologies (ICT) increases, so does the concern about the privacy of individuals. As a consequence, privacy has gained a lot of attention within academic disciplines of computer science as well as social sciences. A number of studies of the relationship between privacy and Web usage, instant messaging, cell phone use, location monitoring, etc., have been made, as well as numerous categorizations of alternative views of privacy and decompositions of the concept.

A majority of these studies have been committed to an ontological (and normative) research perspective. What they share is a belief in the universally definable phenomenon of privacy that can capture future emergent contexts of computing in adequate detail. The problem with such an approach is the methodologically dubious premature closure of the social world of the future in which the new phenomena related to privacy might emerge. As the landscape of privacy evolves with the introduction of new technologies, the a priori definition of privacy components will cause methodological failure of knowing about these new privacy concerns. In turn, and more importantly, this will also cause a recourse to an already closed design space of privacy that does not open any new possibilities to manage privacy at the design level of future technologies.

As an alternative approach, epistemologically oriented research concerns how privacy as a phenomenon is constructed and achieved in everyday life of users. From this standpoint, there is no point asking a priori how privacy is ontologically constructed and with what universal components. The interesting question about privacy from this view is how it is empirically known, managed, and interpreted by users themselves. As such, privacy is treated as a contingent and dynamic phenomenon that users actively shape, orient towards, and interpret in a given situation with different available resources (e.g. human perception, social experience, and information and communication technologies). However, this approach faces other problems than the ontological one. Epistemologically oriented approaches are in danger of fragmenting the whole concept by defining it from situated action, user appropriation, and interpretation. In doing so, an additional risk is that embedded privacy concerns and responsibilities about new technologies are re-distributed from the designers to the users themselves. This will make it difficult for designers to intervene with future social action and technologies early in the design process, leaving the users struggling with new technologies without support for managing the privacy concerns they may induce.

Another conclusion from previous work is that privacy challenges cannot be faced from a purely technical or social perspective, issues about legislation and regulation must also be considered. Privacy legislation and regulation face at least three challenges: generality, evolutionary pace, and cultural independence. The legislative tradition in Europe provides regulations of a general kind with the aim of covering all aspects of a phenomenon. However, privacy is a dynamic and highly context-dependent notion, which makes general regulation either too rigid or too vague. In addition, while the interpretation of privacy evolves over time, the basic structure of legal regulation tends to remain the same for long periods of time and the application of valid rules by courts, organs of public administration, etc., has difficulties keeping up with changing perspectives and emerging new conflicts of interests.

PRIMA is funded by NORDUNET for the period of 2006-9.

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