Behind the scenes at the Digital Footprint MOOC

Last Monday we launched the new Digital Footprint MOOC, a free three week online course (running on Coursera) led by myself and Louise Connelly (Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies). The course builds upon our work on the Managing Your Digital Footprints research project, campaign and also draws on some of the work I’ve been doing in piloting a Digital Footprint training and consultancy service at EDINA.

It has been a really interesting and demanding process working with the University of Edinburgh MOOCs team to create this course, particularly focusing in on the most essential parts of our Digital Footprints work. Our intention for this MOOC is to provide an introduction to the issues and equip participants with appropriate skills and understanding to manage their own digital tracks and traces. Most of all we wanted to provide a space for reflection and for participants to think deeply about what their digital footprint means to them and how they want to manage it in the future. We don’t have a prescriptive stance – Louise and I manage our own digital footprints quite differently but both of us see huge value in public online presence – but we do think that understanding and considering your online presence and the meaning of the traces you leave behind online is an essential modern life skill and want to contribute something to that wider understanding and debate.

Since MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – are courses which people tend to take in their own time for pleasure and interest but also as part of their CPD and personal development so that fit of format and digital footprint skills and reflection seemed like a good fit, along with some of the theory and emerging trends from our research work. We also think the course has potential to be used in supporting digital literacy programmes and activities, and those looking for skills for transitioning into and out of education, and in developing their careers. On that note we were delighted to see the All Aboard: Digital Skills in Higher Education‘s 2017 event programme running last week – their website, created to support digital skills in Ireland, is a great complementary resource to our course which we made a (small) contribution to during their development phase.

Over the last week it has been wonderful to see our participants engaging with the Digital Footprint course, sharing their reflections on the #DFMOOC hashtag, and really starting to think about what their digital footprint means for them. From the discussion so far the concept of the “Uncontainable Self” (Barbour & Marshall 2012) seems to have struck a particular chord for many of our participants, which is perhaps not surprising given the degree to which our digital tracks and traces can propagate through others posts, tags, listings, etc. whether or not we are sharing content ourselves.

When we were building the MOOC we were keen to reflect the fact that our own work sits in a context of, and benefits from, the work of many researchers and social media experts both in our own local context and the wider field. We were delighted to be able to include guest contributors including Karen Gregory (University of Edinburgh), Rachel Buchanan (University of Newcastle, Australia), Lilian Edwards (Strathclyde University), Ben Marder (University of Edinburgh), and David Brake (author of Sharing Our Lives Online).

The usefulness of making these connections across disciplines and across the wider debate on digital identity seems particularly pertinent given recent developments that emphasise how fast things are changing around us, and how our own agency in managing our digital footprints and digital identities is being challenged by policy, commercial and social factors. Those notable recent developments include…

On 28th March the US Government voted to remove restrictions on the sale of data by ISPs (Internet Service Providers), potentially allowing them to sell an incredibly rich picture of browsing, search, behavioural and intimate details without further consultation (you can read the full measure here). This came as the UK Government mooted the banning of encryption technologies – essential for private messaging, financial transactions, access management and authentication – claiming that terror threats justified such a wide ranging loss of privacy. Whilst that does not seem likely to come to fruition given the economic and practical implications of such a measure, we do already have the  Investigatory Powers Act 2016 in place which requires web and communications companies to retain full records of activity for 12 months and allows police and security forces significant powers to access and collect personal communications data and records in bulk.

On 30th March, a group of influential privacy researchers, including danah boyd and Kate Crawford, published Ten simple rules for responsible big data research in PLoSOne. The article/manifesto is an accessible and well argued guide to the core issues in responsible big data research. In many ways it summarises the core issues highlight in the excellent (but much more academic and comprehensive) AoIR ethics guidance. The PLoSOne article is notably directed to academia as well as industry and government, since big data research is at least as much a part of commercial activity (particularly social media and data driven start ups, see e.g. Uber’s recent attention for profiling and manipulating drivers) as traditional academic research contexts. Whilst academic research does usually build ethical approval processes (albeit conducted with varying degrees of digital savvy) and peer review into research processes, industry is not typically structured in that way and often not held to the same standards particularly around privacy and boundary crossing (see, e.g. Michael Zimmers work on both academic and commercial use of Facebook data).

The Ten simple rules… are also particularly timely given the current discussion of Cambridge Analytica and it’s role in the 2016 US Election, and the UK’s EU Referendum. An article published in Das Magazin in December 2016, and a subsequent English language version published on Vice’s Motherboard have been widely circulated on social media over recent weeks. These articles suggest that the company’s large scale psychometrics analysis of social media data essentially handed victory to Trump and the Leave/Brexit campaigns, which naturally raises personal data and privacy concerns as well as influence, regulation and governance issues. There remains some skepticism about just how influential this work was… I tend to agree with Aleks Krotoski (social psychologist and host of BBC’s The Digital Human) who – speaking with Pat Kane at an Edinburgh Science Festival event last night on digital identity and authenticity – commented that she thought the Cambridge Analytica work was probably a mix of significant hyperbole but also some genuine impact.

These developments focus attention on access, use and reuse of personal data and personal tracks and traces, and that is something we we hope our MOOC participants will have opportunity to pause and reflect on as they think about what they leave behind online when they share, tag, delete, and particularly when they consider terms and conditions, privacy settings and how they curate what is available and to whom.

So, the Digital Footprint course is launched and open to anyone in the world to join for free (although Coursera will also prompt you with the – very optional – possibility of paying a small fee for a certificate), and we are just starting to get a sense of how our videos and content are being received. We’ll be sharing more highlights from the course, retweeting interesting comments, etc. throughout this run (which began on Monday 3rd April), but also future runs since this is an “on demand” MOOC which will run regularly every four weeks. If you do decide to take a look then I would love to hear your comments and feedback – join the conversation on #DFMOOC, or leave a comment here or email me.

And if you’d like to find out more about our digital footprint consultancy, or would be interested in working with the digital footprints research team on future work, do also get in touch. Although I’ve been working in this space for a while this whole area of privacy, identity and our social spaces seems to continue to grow in interest, relevance, and importance in our day to day (digital) lives.



Upcoming Events: Citizen Science & Media; PTAS Managing Your Digital Footprints Seminar

I am involved in organising, and very much looking forward to, two events this week which I think will be of interest to Edinburgh-based readers of this blog. Both are taking place on Thursday and I’ll try to either liveblog or summarise them here.

If you are are based at Edinburgh University do consider booking these events or sharing the details with your colleagues or contacts at the University. If you are based further afield you might still be interested in taking a look at these and following up some of the links etc.

Firstly we have the fourth seminar of the new(ish) University of Edinburgh Crowd Sourcing and Citizen Science network:

Citizen Science and the Mass Media

Thursday, 22nd October 2015, 12 – 1.30 pm, Paterson’s Land 1.21, Old Moray House, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh.

“This session will be an opportunity to look at how media and communications can be used to promote a CSCS project and to engage and develop the community around a project.

The kinds of issues that we hope will be covered will include aspects such as understanding the purpose and audience for your project; gaining exposure from a project; communicating these types of projects effectively; engaging the press; expectation management;  practical issues such as timing, use of interviewees and quotes, etc.

We will have two guest presenters, Dave Kilbey from Natural Apptitude Ltd, and Ally Tibbitt from STV, followed by plenty of time for questions and discussion. The session will be chaired by Nicola Osborne (EDINA), drawing on her experience working on the COBWEB project.”

I am really excited about this session as both Dave and Ally have really interesting backgrounds: Dave runs his own app company and has worked on a range of high profile projects so has some great insights into what makes a project appealing to the media, what makes the difference to that project’s success, etc; Ally works as STV and has a background in journalism but also in community engagement, particularly around social and environmental projects. I think the combination will make for an excellent lunchtime session. UoE staff and students can register for the event via Eventbright, here.

On the same day we have our Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme seminar for the Managing Your Digital Footprints project:

Social media, students and digital footprints (PTAS research findings)

Thursday, 22nd October 2015, 2 – 3.30pm, IAD Resources Room, 7 Bristo Square, George Square, Edinburgh.

“This short information and interactive session will present findings from the PTAS Digital Footprint research

In order to understand how students are curating their digital presence, key findings from two student surveys (1457 responses) as well as data from 16 in-depth interviews with six students will be presented. This unique dataset provides an opportunity for us to critically reflect on the changing internet landscape and take stock of how students are currently using social media; how they are presenting themselves online; and what challenges they face, such as cyberbullying, viewing inappropriate content or whether they have the digital skills to successfully navigate in online spaces.

The session will also introduce the next phase of the Digital Footprint research: social media in a learning & teaching context.  There will be an opportunity to discuss e-professionalism and social media guidelines for inclusion in handbooks/VLEs, as well as other areas.”

I am also really excited about this event, at which Louise Connelly, Sian Bayne, and I will be talking about the early findings from our Managing Your Digital Footprints project, and some of the outputs from the research and campaign (find these at:

Although this event is open to University staff and students only (register via the Online Bookings system, here), we are disseminating this work at a variety of events, publications etc. Our recent ECSM 2015 paper is the best overview of the work to date but expect to see more here in the near future about how we are taking forward this work. Do also get in touch with Louise or I if you have any questions about the project or would be interested in hearing more about the project, some of the associated training, or the research findings as they emerge.


There is No Privacy Paradox – just technology that does not support users’ privacy preferences – Angela Sasse, University College London [LiveBlog]

Today I am back for another talk which forms part of the IFIP Summer School on Privacy and Identity Management hosted in Informatics at the University of Edinburgh.

Today’s talk is from Angela Sasse, Professor of Human Centred Technology at University College London, and she also oversees their Computer Security group (her presentation will include work of Anthony Morton). She is also head of the first research group in the UK researching the science of Cyber Security. Apparently she also authored a seminal paper in the ’90s entitled “Humans are not the enemy” which addressed mismatches of perceptions and behaviours. That motif, that users are not the enemy, is still something which has not quite yet been learned by those designing and implementing systems even now. 

I think my title gives you a good idea of what I will be talking about: I will be starting with talking about how people reason about privacy. That is something which is often not accounted for properly, but is important in understanding behaviours. Then I will be talking about why current technologies do not meet their preferences. Then I will look to the future – both some dystopian and utopian scenarios there.

So, how do people reason about privacy? Some work with Adams (2001) looked at this and we used the crucial subtitles “protecting users not just data”. There we pointed out that there is a real difference between how the law treats this, and how people understand privacy. Individuals are pragmatic in their choices, they are thinking about the risks and the benefits – they trade those off. Some of this stuff came out of early internet networking, video calls, etc. but it has stood the test of time as these things have become commonplace.

There has been a raft of research over the last 15 years, not just by computer scientists but also social scientists, ethicists, economists. And we have come to a place that we understand that people do trade risks for benefits but that is not always efficient in an economic sense, it is not always logical… And there are a number of reasons for this: they may not be aware of all risks and consequences – around secondary level information; and around secondary and tertiary usage, aggregation with other data sources; their perception may be skewed by hyperbolic discounting – entirely dismissing things with low risk; there is a paradox here as people do belief in privacy and security but their actions are not always reflective of this.

So, why don’t people act in line with their own preferences? Well there is “Confusology” (Odlyzko) which I’ll come back to. Hyperbolic discounting is about risk in the future and potential, vs rewards that are immediate and tangible (sometimes). Sometimes users say “they know this anyway” – there is no point obfuscating information as “they” know this stuff already – they are just testing honesty or willingness. When you have done a lot of work on financial disclosure this arguement comes up a lot there. It also comes in with ISPs and perceptions of surveillance. Sometimes this reaction is plausible and logical, but sometimes it is much more of a Cognitive Dissonance defense, something of an excuse to minimise workload. That is also why we really do need to work on the public discourse because the more false information is in the public discourse, the most this encourages individuals to make choices in that way. The more we allow that kind of nonsense to be out there, the more it undermines important dicussions of privacy. The final reason is that technology does offer protection people want – but they still want the benefits.

Back to Confusology (Odlyzko 2014), I really recommend Odlyzko’s work here. He talks about several factors: inadvertant disclosure – complex tools make consequences of actions hard to predict; there is too much work – rules and legal jargon make privacy too much work, and people are loathe to expend effort on tasks they see as secondary to their goal. Legal jargon is practically an orchestrated campaign, “I agree with the terms and conditions…” is the biggest lie on the internet!; lack of choice (so consent is not meaningful) – I challenge you to find a provider who offers genuinely meaningful terms of consent; the hidden persuaders – temptation, nudging, exploiting cognitive biases… encouraging users to think that sharing more is the preferred option. I have seen Google encouraging researchers in privacy to work on “opinionated design” because they have tried everything to get people to click through in the right way – they make warnings different every time, hide other options etc. I think this is a slippery slope. In the privacy area we see this choice as pretty fake, particularly if you hide and obscure other options.

The inadvertant disclosure stuff is still happening. Many users do not understand how technology works and that can catch users out – a key example is peer to peer file sharing, but we also see this with apps and the requests they make of your device (use of contacts, data, etc) and there will be lots more inadvertant disclosures associated with that coming out.

Too  much work leads to over disclosure. Once you are in the habit of doing something, you don’t have to think about it too much. It is less work to fill in a form disclosing information you have given before, than to stop and think about what the implications of sharing that data actually are.

We also see successful adopted technologies that fail on privacy. Platforms for Privacy Preferences (P3P) was far too much work to be useful to many people. It was only IE that implemented it, and they did so in a way that websites could systematically escape cookie blocking. It was too complex and too ambiguous for browser vendors. And there is absolutely no means to verify websites do what they say – 5% of TRUST -e “verified” websites had implementation errors in 2010. This is a place where cognitive dissonance kicks in again – people fixate on something that they see as helping with one form of security and don’t necessarily look at other risks. Meanwhile DoNotTrack – users of this are identified more quickly than those who don’t through web finderprinting. Advertising circumvent with Supercookies.

So, it really isn’t clear what you need to do to ensure that the privacy people want is enabled in websites and tools.

To change tack slightly it is worth reflecting on the fact that privacy preferences vary. It can be useful to frame this in a Technology Adoption Framework – TAM offers a useful framework but privacy needs do vary across cultures, and it varies between people. You need to speak to different people in different ways to get the message across. Westin is a three point scale around privacy that you could use, but that is too coarse-grained since it basically only differentiates between hardcore secure users, pragmatists, and those unconcerned.

However there have been various studies with the Westin Scale (see Berkeley Survey 2009; Harris Poll 2003; Harris Poll 1999) and most users fall into the Privacy Pragmatists category. But behaviours, when studied, consistently DO NOT match their preferences! So we need something better.

There have been attempts to improve the Westin scale but there has been limited scope of other alternative measures of privacy concern, e.g. IUIPC (Malhotra et al 2005) and CFIP (Smith et al 1996). And people engage in information seeking behaviours (Beldad et al 2011), since people seek trust signals (trust symbols and trust symptonms) (Riegelsberger et al 2005). Asking people about the provider of a service, and their trust in that provider is important in terms of understanding their behaviour and their preferences.

So my PhD student (Morton) looked to work on development of the Westin scale to better align preferences and behaviours, using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, investigating subjective viewpoints. He has been interviewing people, analysing their statements, and ordering those statements with research participants asking them how well those statements reflected their views. The number of participants (31 offline, 27 online) is relatively small, but the number of statements generated by them was into the thousands – so this is a really complex picture. So, participants ranked statements as important or unimportant with a Q-sort process (a version of card sorting task).

Morton has found that people sort into five categories:

  • Information Controllers – those really aware of the data, looking at the data and what it says about them. These are skeptical people and do not have a high trust in the cloud and want control over the collection, use and dissemination of personal information. For them things that are not important include: organisational assurances; others’ use of the technology service.
  • Security Concerned – their principal focus is on security of the technology platform, providing organisation;s security processes, potential impact on personal security and finances. They are trading off the benefits and risks here. They are less interested in the technology in abstract.
  • Benefit Seekers – are those happy to trade off the risks
  • Crowd Followers – trust in others’ use to make decisions about privacy and security
  • Organisational Assurance Seekers – they look for the organisation to say the right things, disclaimers etc. They expect bad things to happen, and want assurance against that.

Now I think that work is quite interesting. And we are now undertaking a large scale study with 1000 participants in the UK and US with all participants sorted into one of these categories, and several scenarios to assess. The first 300 participants’ contributions already suggest that this is a better model for connecting preference with behaviour.

I did want to talk about why we need to make privacy more salient. Ultimately privacy is about relationships. People manage relationships with other peoplel through selective disclosure of information – that is a fundamental part of how we engage, how we present different personas. As more information is disclosed, the more that is undermined. And that is most obviously taking place in University admissions or potential employer searches for individuals. The inability to make selective disclosures can undermine relationships.

For exampe: a chocolate biscuit purchase: seeing someone buying chocolate biscuits buys the main shop on card, then buys biscuits in cash. It turns out this person’s partner is a health food nut and manages the finances tightly. So that person and their child agree to the healthy food rules at home, but then have access to chocolate biscuits elsewhere. This is how people manage relationships. That sort of lack of disclosure means you do not need to revisit the same arguement time and again, it helps illustrate why privacy is so fundamental to the fabric of society.

We do have ways of making privacy cost more salient. There is this trade off around privacy – we are often told these things are “for your own good”. And without a significant push for evidence that is hard to counter. We don’t force accountability of promised/stated benefits. CCTV in the UK is a great example. It took almost two decades for any investigation into that investment, when there was research it was all pretty damning (Gill and Spriggs 2005; Metropoliton Police Review 2008 – CCTV only contributes to prevention or resolution in 3% of crime, it is costly and there is only 1 crime per 100 cameras). And we have had misuse of CCTV also coming through courts. Investigations into inappropriate behaviour by the London Met Police over a year show inappropriate disclosure – like the CCTV case – a huge percentage of that issue.

We have the extension of the state into something of military surveillance. We see the rise of drones, robots and autonomous vehibles. There is an increasing number of networks and devices – and we see mission creep in this “deeply technophilic” industry. We also see machine learning and big data being advertised as the solve all solution here… But as Stephen Graham notes “emerging security policies are founded on… profiling” of individuals, a Minority Report state. David Murajami Wood from the Surveillance Studies Network talk about automatic classification and risk based profiling as adding up to “social sorting” and we see this with tools like Experian MOSAIC and ACLU Pizza. We must not let this happen without debate, push back, and a proper understanding of the implications.

Odlyzko raised the issue of who controls the information – it is often big global mega corps. The decline of privacy actually undermines the fundamentals of capitalism and the dynamic nature of the market system – a truly dystopian solution.

So, do people really not care? Post Snowden it can seem that way but there are signs to the contrary: the UK Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled GCHQ surveillance to be illegal; major tech companies are distancing themselves from government, putting up legal resistance; and deploying better security (encryption) and we see talk of a Digital Charter from Tim Berners Lee, progressing this debate. Privacy protection behaviours are not always obvious though.

We also see the idea that “Digital Natives Don’t Care” – now that is not true, they just care about different things, they engage in “social steganography” hiding in plain sight (boyd 2014).

So, in conclusion: technology has profound impact on privacy, in many ways that people don’t understand – at least not immediately; people often eagerly assume and over estimate benefits and under estimate and discount risks; we need to counter this by better communication about risks and benefits; communication needs to relate to what matters to people with different preferences.


Q1) It seems to me that some of the classical social science sources about relationships, what information to ignore and which to note… It seems those sources can be updated and adapted to the modern world and that you can analogyse up to the point

A1) Goffman, Goldman (?) and Given (?)

Q1) And more recently Henry Jenkins too.

Q2) From your presentation many people make poor decisions around privacy, but those are pragmatic choices. But I really do think we don’t see people understanding the impact of surveillance – there is a lack of understanding that not only might they look for terrorists but of the other implications of machine learning, of other use of data, and that that is a level of data use that is not proportionate the problem.

A2) That is the debate we need to see in the public discourse so urgently. There is a pushing out of tools without any consideration of those implications. Using the language of cost and waste around data can be useful here, but some want a story of the negative consequences in order to make sense of this – for instance someone being denied a job because of errors or disclosure.

Q3) Do you think that education institutions in the United Kingdom have any role to set an example or themselves or others, by practicing what academics would advise.

A3) Online privacy protection is part of the national curriculum now. If I was running a school I wouldn’t want to turn it into a prison – metal detectors etc. But there is also the tracking of learning behaviours and activities, data mining to identify individual learning paths – risks there are also something to think about. It is often the most mundane and banal stories that often hit home: what if someone is worried to search for treatment for a disease, lest their own status be disclosed by that? Being tracked changes behaviour.

Q4) The detection rate of terrorism is so low that it is not just a waste of money, it is also ineffective method.

A4) But then it is more convenient to sit behind a computer than to actually be out on the street facing direct human interaction and risk, that may also be part of it.

Q5) Going back to the topic of education. there are quite a lot of primary schools in the UK where they are using apps, ebooks etc. Is there

A5) There are three technologists who did a fantastic study. They found it makes kids more obedient, and they start to behave like people in prison which is damaging to individuals as well as to society. This will foster rather than discourage criminal activity.

Comment) Emmerline Taylor, in Australia, has done a book on how kids respond to technology in schools.

And with that we close a really interesting talk with clear relevance for some of the findings and recommendations coming out of our Managing Your Digital Footprint research work.