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Privacy of Public Data

January 19, 2017 by Kirsten E. Martin, Helen Nissenbaum

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In this paper, we shine a light on the opposite effect, challenging conventional assumptions about public information. The paper reports on a series of studies, which probe attitudes and expectations regarding information that has been deemed public. Public records established through the historical practice of federal, state, and local agencies, as a case in point, are afforded little privacy protection, or possibly none at all. Motivated by progressive digitization and creation of online portals through which these records have been made publicly accessible our work underscores the need for more concentrated and nuanced privacy assessments, even more urgent in the face of vigorous open data initiatives, which call on federal, state, and local agencies to provide access to government records in both human and machine readable forms. Within a stream of research suggesting possible guard rails for open data initiatives, our work, guided by the theory of contextual integrity, provides insight into the factors systematically shaping individuals’ expectations and normative judgments concerning appropriate uses of and terms of access to information.