Contextual Integrity: The Cornerstone of Ethical Interaction Design

Published on Tuesday, May 21, 2019
Last updated Wednesday, October 25, 2023
3 min read

In a digital age characterized by the commodification of personal data, the concept of contextual integrity is more relevant than ever. Coined by philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, contextual integrity refers to sharing information according to the expectations under which it was originally offered. It’s a concept that has been rigorously explored in Elizabeth Goodman's article, "Design and Ethics in the Era of Big Data."

Main Claims

  1. Contextual Integrity: The privacy of users is closely tied to the contextual integrity of the information they share. This integrity is often compromised when data is repurposed or sold, an activity that users did not initially consent to.
  2. Ethical Responsibility: Interaction designers have a profound ethical duty to be deliberate in how and what information is collected from users through their designs. They also have a role in determining how and within what context that data is stored and reused.

Ethical Concerns

Goodman outlines four ethical concerns:

  1. Sensor-Infused World: The integration of sensors into everyday devices forms a kind of consumer surveillance, often without the user's explicit knowledge or consent.
  2. Data as a Commodity: Data, once collected, doesn't remain static. It can be stored indefinitely and repurposed, often in ways divergent from the original intent.
  3. Opacity of Back-End Exchange: The end-users are usually in the dark when it comes to how their data is being used or exchanged in the back-end, adding a layer of uncertainty to the whole data ecosystem.
  4. Cultural and Social Impacts: The collection and utilization of data can have unforeseen consequences on diverse cultures and societies, further complicated when business goals misalign with users' interests.

Design Considerations

So, how do we move forward as designers? Goodman suggests several avenues:

  1. Visibility of Data Exchange: Make the data that is being shared and collected visible to users within the user interface, reinforcing contextual integrity.
  2. Advocacy and Limitation: Advocate for the user's privacy during the design process and limit both mandatory and excess data collection.
  3. Perception Shift: Reconceptualize how we view databases—less like static libraries and more like blood banks, where contents can have both beneficial and harmful effects depending on the context in which they are used.
  4. Align Business with Ethics: Designers must strive to align business goals with the best interests of the user, even when these paths seem at odds.

Goodman’s clarion call for a robust ethical stance in interaction design is not just timely but essential. Designers are not mere facilitators but active participants in shaping the ethical landscape of technology. As professionals committed to enhancing the user experience, it is incumbent upon us to take the lead in promoting and preserving contextual integrity. After all, the ethical implications of design are too significant to be left as an afterthought.