Virtual Society?

the social science of electronic technologies

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Privacy protection in the virtual society

Principal Researcher

Mr Charles D Raab
Department of Politics
University of Edinburgh
31 Buccleuch Place
Edinburgh EH8 9JT
+44 (0)131 650 4243


Dr Gary Williams

Research Period
1 October 1997 to
30 September 1999
Aims and Objectives
Project Design


The use of information technologies in the worlds of work, leisure, consumption and government exerts a powerful influence on social cohesion, partly by altering the terms in which people's privacy can be protected. Government proposals for the electronic delivery of services and information, the rationalisation of information processes, and open government, depend upon controlling potential misuse of personal data. These developments raise issues concerning the permissibility of personal data-gathering, its effect upon social relations, and the rules that should govern these activities. If the 'virtual society' is perceived by people as the perfection of surveillance without appropriate safeguards, its promise will remain unfulfilled. The question of trust is strongly implicated. The project studies the redevelopment of the regulatory system for data protection in Britain. It develops theories about privacy protection, and explores strategies and policies in terms of understanding the governance of trust.

Aims and Objectives

The project aims to contribute to theoretical development concerning trust, risk, equity, democracy, the balancing of values and rights and the adequacy of privacy protection. It aims to provide new information about attitudes and practices within the system of data protection as it is altered under the influence of legislation, technological change and new uses of personal data. It aims to understand the interaction of different strategies for privacy protection, and to contribute to policy and practice. The project thus contributes to the themes of social cohesion and social contexts, particularly through addressing the topic of regulation in an area of social, governmental, economic and technological processes.

Project Design

The main research method is semi-structured interviews with leading participants, analysed in relation to the main research themes and questions. Interviewees are selected according to their centrality to decision-making and policy-formation in a variety of organisations and fields. These include sectors of industry, government and politics, the EU and other European organisations, regulatory bodies, trade associations, business organisations, consultancies and legal firms, technology developers, consumer and pressure organisations, and service providers. Data is also collected by attending practitioners' conferences and meetings, which are important occasions for observing discussions of problems, policies, strategies and innovations, for holding informative conversations, for gathering written materials, and for formal interviewing. Documents are collected from a wide range of organisations, and used to prepare for and analyse interviews.


Feedback to practitioners and policy-makers can begin to stimulate assessments of the capability of the data protection system to handle emergent technological and other issues, and how it may be modified. Specifically, clarifying practice-related criteria and values through theoretical development can affect the way practitioners and policy-makers think about aims and methods of data protection. Also, their understanding of systemic interrelations amongst strategies may suggest innovations in designing the implementation system and networks across different roles and institutions. There may be a longer-run impact on theory as these ideas enter academic discourse. The project will also stimulate empirical work on, for example, risk and perceptions of risk, on the social distribution of privacy, on democratic implications, and on the governance of trust. The impact of new knowledge and understanding of the data protection system's roles, relationships and strategies may also foster comparative research across countries.


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Contents current at 12th December 2000