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The Blackberry Project: how easily do we sell our privacy?

The Blackberry Project started in 2009. It grew out of an existing Friendship Project (started in 2003), where students in Dallas agreed to talk openly with researchers about their friendships, relationships and social integration. In 2009 the project went to a different level and changed its name when the students were offered a free Blackberry in exchange for total electronic surveillance. “To continue to participate in the study,” writes the Singularity Hub, “students agreed to have all of their electronic communication stored in a database. Those who did received a new BlackBerry complete with unlimited messaging, a data plan, and voice minutes.”

Now, as results from the project begin to appear, the main conclusion from Singularity appears to be a generational shift in attitudes towards privacy. The researchers “went to great lengths not to betray the confidence of the teens to their parents, even when some of the kids ran away from home or illegal activities were being discussed.” The kids seemed to be content with this. “This suggests that privacy was important to the students when it came to passing information to their parents, but not to complete strangers,” writes the Hub. “It’s safe to say, privacy doesn’t mean the same thing to the younger generation as it does to the older and, just as many suspected, you can thank the web and technology for that.”

But while the report discusses the process, it mentions no ethical concerns or worries about the Blackberry Project itself. Other commentators do. Forbes raised three: are 8th graders equipped to take such decisions over their privacy, and are there issues over the capture of communications from people outside of the area? “And what about the legal implications of sexting teens sending nude photos that are now stored in the database,” it adds as the third, “given the toxicity in the law with regards to possession of child porn?”

Michael Zimmer, co-director of the Center for Information Policy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has his own concerns. He notes that when Forbes asked the project’s Professor Marion Underwood if any of the kids or their parents had expressed concern about the privacy of their communications, she replied, “We haven’t really directly asked about it. We don’t do anything to draw attention to our monitoring.” This worries Zimmer. “Of course, if her hypothesis is true, that validates the privacy concern itself — the participants might actually care about their privacy, once reminded about it.”

Nevertheless, despite any ethical concerns, this project has already run for several years. The Singularity Hub report draws one further conclusion: “Furthermore,” it says, “researchers and companies around the world now have a winning game plan for the Free-Phone-For-Data strategy.”