Privacy Illustrated Book Chapter

By Lorrie Faith Cranor, Rebecca Balebako, Darya Kurilova, & Manya Sleeper

This post is part of a chapter that will appear in the Deep Lab book… coming soon! You can also watch Lorrie Cranor’s Deep Lab seminar presentation on this project.

What is privacy? What does privacy mean to you? 

Privacy is a complex concept that can mean different things, to different people, at different times. Culture, environment, and life experience may shape views on privacy. Even privacy experts struggle to find a single definition of privacy.

Law professor Robert C. Post wrote, “Privacy is a value so complex, so entangled in competing and contradictory dimensions, so engorged with various and distinct meanings, that I sometimes despair whether it can be usefully addressed at all.”

Privacy scholars have written countless articles defining and conceptualizing privacy. Corporations also provide their views through privacy policies that have become nearly ubiquitous on company websites.

We want to know what everyday people think about when they think about privacy. What are they asking for when they ask for privacy? What do they believe has been taken away when they complain that their privacy is being invaded? What is it that they value about privacy?

We use drawings to explore privacy concepts. This allows us to explore insights from children and adults and provides images that convey a wide array of privacy concepts. We visited three Pittsburgh-area schools and asked about 75 students in kindergarten, third grade, sixth grade, and high school to draw pictures of privacy. In each class, we began by asking students to tell their classmates what they think about when they think about privacy. Students spent 5-10 minutes expressing their thoughts about privacy. They then used papers and markers to draw pictures illustrating their thoughts about privacy and signed the pictures with their first names and ages.

kindergarten students drawing images of privacy at CMU Children's School
Kindergarteners with their privacy drawings

To collect drawings from adults, we asked Amazon Mechanical Turk  (MTurk) workers to draw a picture of what they think about when they think about privacy. We paid each worker $1 to upload their drawing and provide us with a short description, their first name or pseudonym, and their age. We restricted our request to U.S. Turk workers and collected 109 drawings in less than a day.

We printed out all the MTurk worker drawings and added them to our collection of student drawings. We then spread them all out on the floor and sorted them into thematic groups, tagged with post-it notes.

We printed out all the drawings and sorted them into thematic groups
We printed out all the drawings and sorted them into thematic groups

A range of themes emerged, which we used to arrange the drawings in our chapter of the Deep Lab book. We describe some of these themes and the tags we created next.

Being alone and creating private spaces
[alone, bedroom, under a blanket, sleeping, away from kids, keeping siblings out, emailing and texting alone, intimacy]
The idea of being alone is one of the most basic concepts of privacy, and the one that dominated the conversation among our youngest contributors. Privacy can involve the ability to be alone or create a private space. For many people, of all ages, this private space is their bedroom, with the door shut, or curled up in a blanket. For some children this involved being able to sleep alone, privately, in their beds. Many pictures depicteda quiet, private space away from disturbances from family. Children drew pictures of places where they went to escape from siblings, while harried mothers drew pictures of real or imagined spaces where they could escape from the demands of the family.

Physical privacy
[changing clothes, bathrooms, bathing]
Multiple drawings illustrated other forms of physical privacy. Children and adults drew pictures of activities during which they wouldn’t want someone physically present or watching, such as changing their clothes or bathing. Many pictures also depicted bathrooms, which are strongly associated with privacy. Some drawings by children illustrated the privacy invasion that occurs when a second person enters a bathroom.

[personal bubbles, doors, fences and walls]
We often use physical barriers to protect our privacy and guard against physical intrusions or being watched. Many people drew physical barriers, such as doors, walls, and fences. In addition, some people drew metaphorical personal bubbles to protect their privacy while keeping the rest of the world away.

[in nature]
For some people, the only way to achieve privacy is to get away from other people, by going for a walk or sitting by themselves in a natural area. Some of our most beautiful drawings came from older contributors who illustrated outdoor solitude.

Privacy of thoughts and ideas
[protecting your thoughts, preventing cheating]
Thoughts and ideas are also often considered personal. Some drawings focussed on keeping thoughts private inside one’s head. Others illustrated efforts to protect their written thoughts, for example, by preventing others from cheating off their test papers.

Online privacy
[computer security, passwords, locks, eyes and cameras, spam, employment risks, social media]
Many privacy concerns relate to the online world. People often want to keep their online data secure, and private, or “lock” it away from others. Social media presents additional risks. People realize that, as they express themselves through social media, they can also risk negative consequences. Many drawings by teenagers focussed on online privacy and social media. Some illustrated approaches to protecting one’s privacy online while others depicted privacy invasions, including sharing of nude selfies.

[government surveillance, ads]
Government surveillance and the use of online data for advertising is also a common concern. People are concerned about their online data being captured by companies and government agencies and wish they had more control. While our youngest contributors did not depict surveillance, this was a common theme for teenagers and adults.

Complexity and illusion
[illusion, collage]
Privacy is complicated. Some pictures reflect this complexity, including a wide range of concepts. Others express that privacy is an illusion, something we can’t truly have.

To add to our collection of drawings from children and adults, we read privacy policies of the 10 most visited US websites (as of December 2014) and chose the most representative and interesting quotes. We also selected quotes about privacy from celebrities and from the scholarly literature on privacy. These quotes are interspersed with related drawings in our book chapter.

The material we collected is illustrative of American views on privacy at the end of 2014. We see a range of simple and complex concepts. Our contributors were influenced by recent events, including Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, the theft of nude celebrity selfies from their cell phones, and Kim Kardashian posing nude for the cover of Paper magazine.

We created a companion website at that displays all the drawings we collected with accompanying descriptions. We invite you to contribute your own drawing of privacy to extend our collection.


Thanks to the students at the Carnegie Mellon Children’s School, the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, and Pittsburgh Colfax who contributed drawings to this project, and their teachers who welcomed us into their classrooms. Thanks also to the Mechanical Turk workers who contributed their drawings. Thanks to Abby Marsh for helping with our school visits.