PA2015: February preview – What happens when you ask people for their consent to be studied?

What happens when you ask people for their consent to be studied?

I’ve always been interested in whether deposition implies consent to be studied, and now it seems more relevant than ever.  I’ve recruited a handful of people, some of whom I know, and others I’ve only connected with online, to look at how our changing notions of privacy are altering what we see as valid material for archaeological study. Well, if they’re altering things at all.

Information and consent

Toward the end of my archaeology career, I had something of a crisis of faith in our ability to piece together anything remotely accurate from a bunch of disparate data points. Having more data didn’t seem to help because data can only tell you what happened, not what someone’s intention was. I also felt sort of…intrusive. Maybe it’s because I worked with relatively late (post-medieval) material that was often attached to an individual who had a name; it wasn’t so anonymous, and I wondered what would happen if it were more recent. If consent were actually possible, would people grant it?

At what point does information become ‘fair game’? Is some stuff just not useful? Is there a difference between “in the interest of posterity” and “of interest to posterity”? That, I thought — and still think — is pretty exciting. Now that everything in the commercial sector is about data, and I’m in a job where I work with it, I want to return to this question.

I want to know what we reveal and conceal about ourselves online and off. I want to know how being watched affects how we describe our behaviour. I want to know what people do and don’t want others to know.

The point of the project isn’t to come up with any kind of conclusions, but to start to identify some of the issues that exist now, and those that will exist in the future, when it comes to storage, guardianship, curatorship, access to, and narratives made with our personal and collective digital data, as a historical archaeological resource. I’ve talked about some of my initial questions here,but now I want to see what else comes up.

In short: do you care if posterity knows that you pooped?

The rough outline

The main task for participants is to choose five things that they do at least three times per week, and record them in some way. It can be anything: brushing their teeth, sending an email, performing a google search, taking their kids to school. I’m asking them to record them, in any way they choose, in any level of depth or detail, or using any (reasonable) medium.

They’ve also filled out a survey that includes questions about how they feel about the privacy of their quotidian data, and they’ll answer the same questions, plus some new ones toward the end of the month, to see if anything has changed.

Finally, happens when you put the privacy controls in the hands of your subjects? Because I want to look at where people’s boundaries are without intruding on them, participants are perfectly welcome to omit anything they’re not comfortable sharing, although I’ve asked if they’ll at least make a note where something has been redacted.


A screen-grab of my browsing history

A screen-grab of my browsing history


And then what?

Up to now, archaeologists have pretty much assumed, with some (ok, many) exceptions, that deposition of material implies consent to be studied. We also know that people who self-historicise behave differently than those who don’t (for example, by creating conscious archives).There are projects like this Cold War one at the Greenham Common site, where including some of the people who lived there helped shed light on otherwise impossible things, but also brought up issues of what is and isn’t an acceptable intrusion.

I’ve always wondered what would happen if we assumed the same level of concern for privacy, even where we couldn’t actually obtain consent. And now, we know that our data is being collected and stored by companies, governments, and all kinds of other institutions. We’ve always seen data collection as a form of surveillance — even when we haven’t called it that — but I don’t think we’ve ever been so collectively concerned about who knows what about us, even if it’s not a secret.

How is the digital world changing how we view what is ‘private’, or even ‘secret’? What new opportunities will arise, and how can we best make the most of them without being unwelcome intruders into people’s lives? Do we need to change our ways?

I’ve landed firmly in the business world now, and part of my job is to be in charge of people’s data, but I consider it part of my duty as a human being to make sure that we are really aware of the kind of resource we have — and what is and isn’t okay to use. Because what is legal is not necessarily ethical.

For me, the implications are twofold: doing business in a way that is more ethical and (maybe) understanding the potential secondary social-historical-archaeological uses of data collected for a business purpose, and also a plain-old issue of archaeological ethics. Because for me, that was always the most interesting part of archaeology: who is really entitled to join the dots?


February 2015: Jane Ruffino, digital archaeologist

Archaeology in the Age of (No) Privacy

jane history

This is a screenshot of some of the search history on my iPad. As you can see, I’ve been on Twitter, Facebook, and a live webcam of some puppies (you should check it out), along with two shots of vanity: an article I wrote for an online collection, and a tumblr I put together of doge memes. Oh, and let’s just not talk about the Kid Rock Cruise (unless you want to, which I sort of do).

I don’t feel strange sharing this because I scrolled through my search history to find a shot that wouldn’t violate anyone else’s privacy, but one that also wasn’t just streams of browsing shoes online. But what stops me from sharing a screenshot that includes email subject lines or the names of Facebook friends? I’m concerned for their privacy, sure, but does it matter if I’m not that concerned about my own (I am, generally)? Or is privacy not a herd-immunity situation?

What will the reshaping of our privacy concerns mean for archaeology in the future? How will it change what people will expect to know about their past, and how will it determine what we’re able to access?

Archaeology and the tech industry

I work in the tech industry, mostly doing marketing and content strategy with startups, so I spend a lot of time analyzing user behavior, creating narratives and constructing possible explanations out of streams of data left by people whose intentions I can’t ever really know – that maybe they don’t even know.

I get paid to look at the traces people leave behind, and figure out what those traces mean, so that I can take action that might make them click a button that gives us money. It’s archaeology — and then some.

I’ve always been interested in what we have a right to know about the people whose data we have access to. It’s come up in archaeology, especially in relation to politically charged areas, and/or more recent eras. And it comes up in the digital realm on a daily basis. Right now, these questions remain separate. But increasingly, our digital lives will become the record of social history for the 21st century. What happens then?

Privacy, ethics, and extreme caution in the face of data, especially data that seems self-evident, were a core part of my interests as an archaeologist, and those remain at the centre of how I do my job today.

The right of archaeologists to study people’s personal lives remains largely unquestioned because it’s seen as in the public interest. And yet, even if it’s not for commercial gain, your personal digital life is not open for outside analysis because that is an invasion of your privacy. The consensus on the former is incompatible with the consensus on the latter.

Or is this even true?

It might not even be true.

What is privacy, really?

Will digital privacy start to make people uncomfortable about archaeological practices? What way do we need to change our practices so that we can carry out a role that is in the public interest without violating privacy, or leaving out essential chunks of the story?

Does it matter that I recently Googled “toxic bird poop,” or that I have been enjoying “Samuel Beckett motivational cat posters”? Do you want me to explain why I looked up “jason statham deodorant,” “john galt underoos” (neither exist, by the way), or “who is the least attractive Skarsgård”? Not really. A few of these results will be enough to let you know that I try to check my facts before being funny on the internet. It doesn’t tell you much about who I am as a person – no more than a few knickknacks would do — and I’m not sure how much I want you to know.

At first, I thought I could run a kind of experiment, where I invite people to study each other, where I set up a research project that involves repeatedly violating each other’s privacy in order to see where our boundaries are (yes, this probably would have involved safe words, and yes, I would have to Google how they work). But I’m not sure the positive impact of a casual experiment like this would outweigh the ethical and logistical dimensions, and besides, I think we’d be skipping a few steps.

A public conversation about privacy and social life

I want to open up a conversation about what we will and won’t accept when it comes to archaeology, today, and in the future. This is a conversation technology companies are already having: they are extremely interested in the long-term status of our personal data. Our governments are definitely doing it. And then there are organisations like the Internet Archive, who are trying to preserve the whole web on a budget of a couple million dollars.

We, as people, as archaeologists, as tech professionals, journalists, social researchers, and whatever else we might be, need to be having this conversation, too.

Each week for the month of February 2015, I’ll choose a case study that touches on a key theme, and invite people to have a discussion around the uneasy relationship between archaeology and privacy, and the implications of that today, and in the future.

At the end of the month I want us to have come up with a list of specific questions that we can ask before or during projects that involve other people’s information.

* Does archaeology invade people’s privacy?

* Who controls the narrative if a private company owns our data?

* If the deposition of an object implies consent, then what about when that object is made out of data?

* Who should index our knowledge, and what happens if you want to opt out?

* How can we develop methodologies for studying the digital past, with the knowledge that the people most concerned with their privacy might turn out to be the least known?

See you in February ’15.

Unless, of course, I take the Kid Rock Cruise after all (because there’s no way that will end well).