George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason Researcher Looks at Privacy as a Value

June 25, 2013

By James Greif

Priscilla Regan

Priscilla Regan. Creative Services photo

“We’ve updated our privacy policy!”

Those words can strike fear into the hearts of social media and technology users.

To use services by companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook, you must first agree to a terms of usage agreement. As these agreements get longer and contain more legalese, are we losing our right to privacy when we click “Agree”? But the larger question may be, Do we care?

Mason professor Priscilla Regan, chair of the Department of Public and International Affairs, says people still very much care about privacy, despite the number of online interactions that require personal information.

“Very few read those forms, most people just click ‘submit’ to everything,” Regan says. “People do not tend to focus on the larger picture of what they are giving up in terms of privacy and instead focus on the direct transaction. However, this doesn’t mean that the public isn’t concerned.”

Regan should know. She has been studying privacy longer than the most of us have been paying attention to the issue. She first tackled the subject during her dissertation research in the late 1970s while earning her PhD at Cornell University.

Author or co-author of 50 articles or book chapters, Regan has seen a number of changes to privacy perceptions and policy through the years. She says it is those changes that keep her interested in the subject from an academic perspective.

“Every time I think I’m going to get bored of studying privacy, something interesting happens to draw me back in,” she says. “Either the technology changes or the politics change and as a result, we think about privacy in ways we haven’t before.”

I accept

Most people accept online privacy policies without giving it much thought.

Regan says that most legal and philosophical studies of privacy relate its importance to individuals and their personal preferences. However, she indicates that there are other ways of looking at the issue.

One continuing theme of her research has been privacy as a value. “What does privacy mean? And what are the policy implications of thinking about it in different ways? I’m fascinated by the answers to questions such as these,” Regan says.

“I believe that there is a social and public value to privacy. The decisions we make collectively around privacy have an impact on society.”

This topic was the primary subject of her book, “Legislating Privacy: Technology, Social Values, and Public Policy” (University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

“Even though we may make slightly different calculations about how important privacy is, if you look at the public opinion polls and political cultures, you find that people value privacy in very similar ways.”

She likens privacy to clean air or national defense as a common public value that everyone has a stake in.

“Even with all the technology changes, there is a core value to privacy that has not changed over time.”

Along these lines, Regan has recently worked on projects related to generational attitudes about privacy.

She is a contributor to the eGirls Project in Canada, which explores through interviews and focus groups how girls and young women are integrating digital and social media into their lives. Professors Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves at the University of Ottawa serve as principal investigators. Regan is hoping to replicate aspects of this research in the United States.

Along with Mason graduate student Gerald FitzGerald and Public and International Affairs professor Peter Balint, Regan also explored public opinion data about privacy from 1970 to 2010 for the article, “Generational Views of Information Privacy?” published in the journal Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research. In this article, they looked at the same set of questions from the General Social Survey to see how privacy attitudes changed during that period.

In the past year, hackers uncovered the passwords of millions of Yahoo and LinkedIn users. Regan looks at such security breaches as motivation for organizations to protect private data.

“It is in the company’s best interest to keep its data secure,” she says. “Bad publicity can hurt the bottom line.”

In other words, if a company keeps getting hacked, customers will flee from its services.

“The law protects consumers in most fraud environments, so companies have a vested interest in keeping their data locked up because earnings are at stake. But stronger data security legislation is still needed to protect consumers against security breaches and identity theft.”

Regan says that while hackers are always a threat to information privacy, hacking attempts have also led to security advancements.

“Hackers are always finding new ways to attack secure systems. It’s a game to them. The flip side is that the response to the hacks leads to newer innovations to keep that data secure.”

This article originally appeared in Mason Research 2013.