Privacy in tech: a sociological, not a mechanical challenge

Sebastian Greger

Where in 2006, the original “Privacy paradox” by Susan B. Barnes described how young people liberally share private information online while older people are more privacy-conscious, the “New privacy paradox” derived from survey data by Grant Blank, Gillian Bolsover and  Elizabeth Dubois in 2014 states that young people are much more likely to put effort in consciously protecting their privacy online than older people.

We have what looks like a paradox of paradoxes here. This illustrates above all, how online communication platforms have become such integral part of the social life world that the conscious effort of managing privacy on these platforms has turned into an everyday routine. Blank, Bolsover and Dubois provide a broad and valuable analysis of their data, but most interestingly a suggestion for a “sociological theory of privacy”:

  • social structure creates context, with social circles that are independent and unaware of each other

  • information available to one circle may be unavailable to others (the personal aspect of privacy)

  • its relationship to institutions further complicates privacy; essentially just another circle, these often are more strict and shared information may bear severe consequences

  • privacy in relation to governments has to be seen as a different kind of privacy due to the power and resources available to them

  • privacy is a meta-norm, not only regulating behaviour within circles but also between circles

Blank, Bolsover and Dubois’ analysis explains the “New privacy paradox” with the increased complexity between these factors for young people in particular, but ultimately come to a conclusion that - in my personal interpretation - illustrates well why “privacy settings” in social web services are only a small part of the complex social phenomenon that is privacy and why the discussion on privacy in tech would benefit from a far more sociological rather than mechanical perspective:

Privacy may still be a strong social norm, but is often not in the interest of SNSs providers to cater to the differentiated nature of the norm. Instead, companies such as Facebook stand to gain commercial benefit from the use of personal data uploaded on these sites. The real paradox is that these sites have become so embedded in the social lives of users that to maintain their social lives they must disclose information on them despite the fact that there is a significant privacy risk in disclosing this information and that these sites do not provide adequate privacy controls to enable users to make them meet their diverse privacy needs.


Barnes, S. B. (2006). A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States. First Monday,11(9). Retrieved from

Blank, G. Bolsover, G. and Dubois, E. (2014). A New Privacy Paradox: Young People and Privacy on Social Network Sites. Prepared for the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, 17 August 2014, San Francisco, California. Retrieved from:

I'm Sebastian, Sociologist and Interaction Designer. This journal is mostly about bringing toge­ther social science and design for inclusive, privacy-focused, and sustainable "human-first" digital strategies. I also tend to a "digital garden" with carefully curated resources.