Digital privacy and personal, social and civic agency: refugees' experiences

Voigts, Matthew (2020) Digital privacy and personal, social and civic agency: refugees' experiences. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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This dissertation explores how refugees in Europe and the UK manage privacy on social media. It aims, firstly, to empirically qualify if and how privacy supports individual, social and civic benefits with which it has been associated in theoretical literature and popular concern. Secondly, it connects these discussions on privacy to digital anthropological discussions of globally-situated social media use and an emerging multi-disciplinary literature on refugees’ social media use which have grown concurrently since the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’. The research was conducted through in-depth interviews with 23 refugees, asylum seekers, and other individuals from countries in conflict; participant-observation in eight migration-related NGOs; and ethnographic relationship building. The project was primarily conducted in the East Midlands of the UK. The methodology and theoretical approach draws from digital and existential anthropology.

Many academic and popular discussions of privacy since the late 1800s are derived from legal theory and concerns related to new technologies. These have held that privacy allows individuals to self-actualize and rest at home; selectively self-express in public to manage differing social expectations; and participate in civic life. These discussions generally concern an idealized ‘private citizen,’ usually as American or European home-owning heads of household with near-absolute control of his or her private space and public image. Today, vast quantities of personal digital data are created, stored, analyzed, and sold outside the purview of the individual. How individuals and infrastructures manage this information – and what happens when it escapes imagined contexts – are major concerns.

The dissertation links these early, theoretically rich discussions to present-day discussions that emphasize data management, while using refugees’ experiences to challenge the idealizations found in both. Unlike the envisioned private citizen, refugees have left their homes to escape danger, a key legal requirement for gaining asylum. An asylum infrastructure – ostensibly there to protect them – proscribes their rights of ‘private life’ to reside, work, and live with family members. Refugees today also use mobile phones and social media to travel and stay in touch with distant friends and family. They thus have interests in protecting their digital data – with sometimes life-or-death stakes – while lacking or having lost many of the assumed underpinnings suggested by the term ‘privacy’.

The research found that refugees situate their experiences leaving their home countries within their overall life trajectories. While the UK asylum process requires refugees to demonstrate the necessity of having fled their homelands, rejecting them if their accounts are deemed not credible, even people in danger move in part because they can imagine better futures for themselves, their families and their careers – the life that ‘privacy’ is held to protect. Many refugees use social media to seek news and information about family and friends. At the same time, as other digital anthropologists have observed with many communities, refugees are highly selective about how they incorporate self-development into their online identities. They often add minimal content to their broadly-visible Facebook walls while extensively using messaging services like WhatsApp geared toward small-group or individuated communication. These practices are notable in that as they face challenges and offline expressive possibilities in European life, they continue employing norms of their home countries online so as not to further upset social continuities with distant friends and family. As they settle into life in Europe, they increase use with their local lives and self-actualization in mind. They ultimately engage in widely visible activity that can support both ‘close’ and ‘far’ lives without compromising either. It is easier to build these public personas and privately self-actualize – as the aforementioned literature has discussed privacy – with the ‘civic rights’ to legally live and work (through refugee status or student or work visas) in place. In these senses, public and private agencies and benefits are bound to each other, and ‘private life’ is not necessarily foundational to public life.

In contrast to privacy in everyday social life, institutional data management practices are often more explicitly codified. Like privacy, they are often aimed at maintaining a practical or performed status quo that can support or hinder particular individuals’ agency. Codes of ‘confidentiality’ can meaningfully regulate information sharing because they generally govern specified situations – such as meetings with doctors, lawyers, or caseworkers – that, may involve sensitive, personal information but are largely separate from everyday social life. Confidentiality helps to maintain this separation.

Purportedly clear informational practices, however, do not necessarily always (or, in and of themselves) serve individuals’ interests. For those stuck within it, the UK asylum bureaucracy can be a dystopic example of careful information management. Its ‘culture of denial’ suggests that presenting or withholding information is not necessarily effective unto itself unless claimants are granted credibility by people assessing their social performances of need. In the asylum system and refugees’ social lives, information management – as emphasized in present-day discussions of privacy – is one factor in maintaining privacy. Information can be employed and withheld agentively by refugees in ongoing social life. It can also be varyingly scrutinized by assessors to accept or deny claims or friends and family to maintain ongoing social relationships. The terms ‘confidentiality’ and ‘security’ – respectively, codes of conduct and technical affordances related to information transmission – can often be employed more precisely than the more connotatively-suggestive word ‘privacy’.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: McCabe, Scott
Martindale, Sarah
Keywords: privacy, refugees, asylum, confidentiality, anthropology
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
Q Science > QA Mathematics > QA 75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > Nottingham University Business School
UK Campuses > Faculty of Science > School of Computer Science
Item ID: 59879
Depositing User: Voigts, Matthew
Date Deposited: 31 Jul 2020 04:40
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2022 04:30

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