Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Privacy and agency in refugees’ digital communications

  Matt Voigts (2014 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxmv

My ethnographic research aims to understand how refugees and asylum seekers experience and manage informational privacy in their personal lives and the UK asylum system, incorporating and applying their experiences to theoretical, policy and design concerns around information management. It has been conducted through ethnographic engagement with Nottingham and Leicester-based NGOs, charities and aid organizations, as well as interviews with asylum seekers primarily from Syria and other Arabic and majority-Islamic countries.

Privacy concerns abound in the digital era, in which extensive amounts of personal data are routinely created, shared, and analysed. While the term is notoriously difficult to define (the ‘right to be let alone’ [1] being a useful-enough shorthand), digital-era academic and legal discussions closely associate privacy with how we and the services we use manage our personal data. In these views, privacy is a tool to manage different relationships and public identities by selectively revealing and concealing information, and we know what to share and not based on our social convention [2]. You share things with your doctor that you wouldn’t necessarily share with your friends, and keeping these conversations distinct lets you fulfill different, sometimes conflicting social roles. Privacy is also valued for how it allows people to take temporary breaks from social pressures and participate in democracy and political advocacy [3].

Yet the ‘man’s home is his castle’ ideal of being able to normatively keep to oneself, and engage with others on one’s desired terms, is not reflective of most people’s experiences presently or historically. This research proposes that to understand vulnerabilities, we should look to people in challenging circumstances. Many asylum seekers who traveled to Europe in recent years have used mobile phones and social media to plan and navigate their journeys [4]. They come from cultures with different norms than those assumed by American and Western European-focused privacy literature. As they negotiate their public and private lives in their new homes, they use phones (and digital messaging apps like WhatsApp) extensively for everyday communications with a developing global diaspora. Their social media activity – particularly if political – come with the risk of dangerous consequences for their lives and the lives of family back home. Yet, despite assumptions in the privacy literature of information’s abundance, as asylum applicants seeking a right to stay legally in the UK, they often face challenges trying to ‘prove’ relevant personal facts about their lives, including who they are, where they are from, and the dangers they faced that prompted them to leave their homes.

Refugees’ and asylum seekers’ experiences test how privacy ideals and practices operate in challenging, real-world circumstances, and this research offers empirical evidence to support effective personal information management in diverse situations on and offline.


  1. Warren, S. and Brandeis, L., 1890. ‘The Right to Privacy’. Harvard Law Review 4 pp. 193-220.

  2. Nissenbaum, H., 2010. Privacy in context. Stanford UP: Stanford.

  3. Westin, A., 1967. Privacy and freedom. Atheneum: New York.

  4. Gillespie, M., et al. 2016. Mapping refugee media journeys: smartphones and social media networks. Research Report: The Open University / France Medias Monde


  1. Gauci, J.-P. et al, 2016. Migrants' use of social media in Malta. People for Change Malta. August 2016.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/L015463/1) and Open Rights Group.