The practical politics of sharing personal data


The focus of this paper is upon how people handle the sharing of personal data as an interactional concern. A number of ethnographic studies of domestic environments are drawn upon in order to articulate a range of circumstances under which data may be shared. In particular, a distinction is made between the in situ sharing of data with others around you and the sharing of data with remote parties online. A distinction is also drawn between circumstances of purposefully sharing data in some way and circumstances where the sharing of data is incidental or even unwitting. On the basis of these studies, a number of the organisational features of how people seek to manage the ways in which their data is shared are teased out. The paper then reflects upon how data sharing practices have evolved to handle the increasing presence of digital systems in people’s environments and how these relate to the ways in which people traditionally orient to the sharing of information. In conclusion, a number of ways are pointed out in which the sharing of data remains problematic and there is a discussion of how systems may need to adapt to better support people’s data sharing practices in the future.

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    What the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “The quantities, characters, or symbols on which operations are performed by a computer, which may be stored and transmitted in the form of electrical signals and recorded on magnetic, optical or mechanical recording media.” (see

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    The coinage of this term relates to its Greek origins and the works of Plato and Aristotle where it is associated with the active pursuit of policies to facilitate the governance of specific communities and the associated accountabilities of the governors and the governed. Here we are interested in how those policies are produced and made visible through the conduct of our everyday affairs, and how they are practically managed in our ongoing interactions with and our accountability to specific cohorts of people.

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    There is, of course, a whole literature regarding the management of online ‘identity’ that relates to this, e.g. [80], but we have not the space to tackle this topic directly here.

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    This is itself an important point because, for the larger part, it is clear that people do not sit and concern themselves with this afresh each time they share personal data online. Rather, actively reasoning about whether something might be made visible to third parties is an occasioned matter. That is, to take an extreme example, members of extremist organisations might take pause before sharing something that would risk making this visible to government, police or military authorities. As we also go onto point out in this section, however, it is notable how often the background expectation remains even in such extreme circumstances, and there are plenty of examples of people being caught out in just this fashion.


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This work was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council [grant numbers EP/F064276/1, EP/K039911/1, EP/M001636/1, EP/N028260/1] and the European Commission [FP7-ICT project ID 611001]. Thanks are also extended to the numerous household inhabitants who have participated in the studies over the past 10 years. Data supporting this publication is not openly available, as University of Nottingham ethics approval does not allow for the release of transcripts containing personal data to third parties.

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Tolmie, P., Crabtree, A. The practical politics of sharing personal data. Pers Ubiquit Comput 22, 293–315 (2018).

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  • Personal data
  • Privacy
  • Information sharing
  • Domestic data management practices
  • Ethnomethodology