Communicating about Privacy: the Dilemma of Jargon Use

I am constantly pondering about this question: “How can we effectively talk about privacy?”

On first glance, this question seems to be easy to answer, almost trivial. After all, everyone knows what privacy is! And everyone could tell stories about things that happened to them in the past where privacy was an issue.

However, do we really know what privacy is? To demonstrate the importance of this question I propose this experiment to you, dear reader: ask 20 people about their definition of privacy. I am almost certain that you will not receive two definitions that are exactly the same! This reveals one of the paradoxes associated with the study of privacy: it is a term that is used to describe many different situations. We use privacy to describe our need to be alone after a long social event. We attach the term to information that we do not want everyone to know in order to protect our image. It is also attached to information that could be used to hurt us financially. Privacy describes what couples seek out when they want to share intimate moments. We say our privacy is invaded when people look through our things or go look around our homes without permission. The list of uses of the term go on and on.

For scientific investigation (or at least the dissemination of results) this poses a challenge. It is rarely the case that we can investigate the entire spectrum of behavior associated with privacy. Instead, we focus on different aspects: privacy in social networks, privacy in health care, privacy in location sharing, and so on. And with this segmentation comes a need to distinguish between the different uses of the term privacy. Eventually, this leads to the emergence of a certain vernacular. Jargon rears its ugly head. And within the different research communities this is not only to be expected, but desirable. It makes communication more efficient. However, on the flip-side, it makes the research findings that use this jargon inaccessible to outsiders.

Thus arises the dilemma: the jargon allows researchers to distinguish their contributions among each other, yet it creates a chasm in between the research community and the general public. And while it is, without a doubt, desirable to see the general public as one of the recipients of any scientific endeavor, the publications process provides a hurdle to actually making results not only available to but also understandable by the general public. (As a side-note: Computer Science is a discipline where conferences dominate among the possible publication venues.) Not only is access to the actual publication restricted to subscribers of the various publishers, but papers are also full of jargon that makes them unintelligible to people outside of the field. This latter issue is not necessarily encouraged by the publishers or conference organizers, but can rather be attributed to the strict page limits of conference papers (other factors certainly also come to play). Page limits transform every sentence from a tool of conveying information into a squatter occupying valuable page real estate. Suddenly, the eloquent phrase describing intricate human behavior gives way to the three syllable buzzword for the sake of saving space.

A possible solution to both could be Open Access. Without the requirements stemming from  print media and through a re-focusing onto the digital realm, page limits could be a thing of the past. Similarly, by definition, open access would allow the general public to peruse research findings at their leisure. However, a shift is required from authors of research publications as well. We, as authors, need to rediscover the art of telling stories. Especially in a domain like privacy research that struggles with the ambiguity of one of its key terms, a shift from creating new terms for a category of behavior towards the eloquent description of that behavior is required. This description of behavior also provides the bridge to the general public, as it focuses on something we all have in common: being human.

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