Transparency decreases concerns about surveillance

Transparency about the purpose and intent of data gathering can decrease concerns about surveillance. The basic and most important question is who uses the data and for what purposes.

These timely findings from a Finnish research echo the uproar triggered by the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden. In line with the ongoing public discussion on surveillance, the results of the new study suggest that a key contributor to the negative perception of surveillance is the lack of transparency by those who are doing the surveilling.

Researchers from Aalto University and the University of Tampere devised an experiment in order to examine how information about who collects the data and how they use it affects people’s feelings about surveillance.

In the experiment, the participants (n = 1,897) were presented with nine different scenarios where their privacy was potentially threatened. The scenarios covered many topical privacy issues from health records to sports tracking, smartphone logging and the surveillance of Facebook usage. In the surveillance scenarios, the data collector was presented to be either an individual, an organisation, or an unknown party. The participants were informed that the collected data were either being used for neutral purposes, malicious purposes, or unknown purposes.

Among all of the variations of the scenarios, the participants found domestic video surveillance, communications recording and keylogging on a personal computer as the three most alarming types of surveilling. Surveillance of Facebook usage was ranked fourth, while somewhat surprisingly the participants rated GPS tracking and keeping centralised health records among the least alarming scenarios.

The participants rated having an unknown party gather information with malicious intent as the most threatening scenario as opposed to situations where the data was gathered by a known party. Surprisingly, when the intent of surveillance was neutral or unknown, an unknown data collector was perceived as the least threatening.

Oulasvirta, A., Suomalainen, T., Hamari, J., Lampinen, A., & Karvonen, K. (2014). Transparency of Intentions Decreases Privacy Concerns in Ubiquitous Surveillance.
Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), 633-638.

For more information, please contact:
Postdoctoral researcher Juho Hamari +358 50 318 6861,