research note

Transparency Decreases Concerns about Surveillance

Our recent study indicates that transparency about the purpose and intent of data collection can decrease concerns about surveillance. The most important and basic information is who uses the gathered data and for what purposes.

These timely findings echo the uproar triggered by the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. In line with ongoing public discussion regarding surveillance, our results suggest that a key contributor to the negative perception of surveillance is the lack of transparency practiced by the potential surveilling parties.

Combining forces from Aalto University and University of Tampere, we devised an experiment to examine how information about who collects data and how these actors use it affects how people feel about surveillance. In the experiment (n = 1,897), participants where presented with nine different scenarios where their privacy was potentially threatened. The scenarios covered many topical privacy issues, ranging from health records to sports tracking and smartphone logging and surveillance of Facebook usage. In the surveillance scenarios, the data collector was presented to be either an individual,  an organization, or an unknown party. The participants were informed that the collected data were being used either for neutral purposes, malicious purposes, or purposes that were unknown.

Among all of the variations of the scenarios, the three most alarming were domestic video surveillance, communications recording, and keylogging on a personal computer. Surveillance of Facebook usage was ranked fourth, while somewhat surprisingly, participants rated GPS tracking and centralized health records among the least alarming scenarios.

Participants rated having an unknown party gather information with malicious intent as the most privacy threatening scenario, as opposed to situations where the data was gathered by a known party. Surprisingly, when the intent of surveillance was neutral or unknown, the unknown data collector was perceived as the least threatening.

Link to the article: Oulasvirta, A., Suomalainen, T., Hamari, J., Lampinen, A., & Karvonen, K. (2014). Transparency of Intentions Decreases Privacy Concerns in Ubiquitous Surveillance. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), 633-638. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2013.0585.

For further information, please send inquiries to  Prof. Antti Oulasvirta at Aalto University (antti.oulasvirta(at)

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