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UBC Theses and Dissertations

"Between knowing and not knowing" : privacy, transparency and digital records Hofman, Darra


As the world has become more digitized, with records datafied, aggregated, sold and resold by data brokers, and analyzed by algorithms, there has been hue and cry about privacy. Simultaneously, “transparency” has achieved almost talismanic status, invoked in contexts from privacy policies to open government movements as a means to achieve more accountable, democratic processes. As old fears of surveillance by Big Brother have yielded to multiveillance of individuals, communities and groups by a multitude of corporate and government entities, records, especially digital records, have become a site of conflict for questions about access, about how and by whom one is known, and about how to negotiate the space “between knowing and not knowing” (Han, 2015, 247). This dissertation examines the relationship between privacy and transparency in digital records from an archival perspective. Using a qualitative research design, it explored the legal, social, technical, and practice-oriented aspects of privacy and transparency with regards to digital records in Canadian and American archival practice. Doctrinal legal research provided an overview of the legal requirements. A critical interpretive synthesis of the literature revealed major lines-of-argument for both privacy and transparency. A case study examined the challenges of privacy and transparency in novel information technology, and the impact of data-centric, as opposed to records-based, approaches. Document analysis of privacy and access policies from a variety of archival institutions, and a focus group interview with archivists, records managers, and privacy officers, explored the lived reality of privacy and transparency. The findings show “privacy” and “transparency” function as umbrella constructs, encompassing practices, values, actions, and contextual factors, which can conflict or overlap. Indeed, the constructs can contradict themselves; transparency, for example, functions as metaphor for both visibility and invisibility depending upon context. Furthermore, this study found that recordkeeping practices are fundamental to enabling/constraining privacy and transparency outcomes. Finally, the study found that the transactional nature of legal and bureaucratic records is key to their transparency and accountability functions, but digitization has turned documents and non-legal records into records through mediation. The study concludes with a framework for making privacy and transparency decisions about digital records.

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