Digital Control For Everyone: Recognizing Data Mining


In large letters with colored backgrounds, the pop-up window of the online shop says “I accept” with a very small “Individual privacy settings” underneath. It’s about cookies, personalized ads and individual content, to which – from the company’s point of view – users agree at best. Only few people are aware of the consequences. Social psychologists at the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE) investigate how users with different backgrounds can make self-determined decisions about their digital data. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding the project for three years with 1.23 million euros.

We act instinctively in the analog world: In a private conversation, we tilt our heads toward each other and lower our voices. Or we step aside to read a message alone. “If someone violates our privacy, our senses usually notify us,” explains Clara Strathmann, PhD student in the social psychology research group led by Prof. Dr. Nicole Krämer. “But if we are online, this intuition fails.”

Some people are particularly vulnerable in the digital world: Those who are poorly educated or have limited cognitive abilities, or people who do not speak the local language well enough. They are hardly in a position to come to an informed decision about the use of their data. Strathmann, Krämer and their team are therefore researching possible solutions in the recently launched project DiversPrivat – Diversitätsgerechter Privatheitsschutz in digitalen Umgebungen (translates to: Diversity-Oriented Privacy Protection in Digital Environments).

The researchers intend to increase sensitivity to the disclosure of private data to avoid potential negative consequences. Based on the results of the study, they are developing suitable signals that, for example, attract attention visually or acoustically. The team hopes that this will prevent people from agreeing to the collection of data too quickly. In order to make the project as practical and ready for application as possible, colleagues from the University of Kassel are analyzing the legal aspects. Ethicists from the universities of Passau and Tübingen are involved as well.

“Together, we will explore ways to perceive digital privacy violations as instinctively as we do in analog life,” Strathmann says. “The physical feeling we have when someone peers over our shoulder without invitation is something we’re all familiar with. It would be perfect if we were able to map that online and make it perceptible.”

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