Terms of public service: Framing mobile privacy discourses
First Monday

Terms of public service: Framing mobile privacy discourses by Pawel Popiel

Engaging normative theories of the press and research examining the evolution of privacy coverage, this study examines press coverage of mobile app privacy issues between 2013 and 2016. The research sheds light on how the press frames privacy concerns within the mobile app context. Since such coverage can define the norms circumscribing the flows of users’ personal information, this study contributes to the debate about the role of the press in alerting the public to privacy issues that carry significant public interest implications. Ultimately, mobile privacy coverage favors certain solutions over others, emphasizes privacy tradeoffs over privacy rights, and balances user powerlessness with mobile app convenience and innovation, with implications for privacy discourses in public and policy arenas.


Framing and the news media’s monitorial role
Privacy frames




In 2013, disclosures by Edward Snowden documenting a vast surveillance network involving several governments and various corporations received wide media attention. Although scholars have examined news coverage of these leaks (e.g., Salter, 2015; Wahl-Jorgensen, et al., 2017), the coverage of arguably less visible, but more everyday issues raised by the increasingly ubiquitous mobile applications received almost no attention. Yet the market for mobile apps is both expansive and lucrative. As of 2018, 237.6 million Americans own a smartphone, with a penetration reaching 69.6 percent (eMarketer, 2018). The top 10 most popular apps receive, on average, between 29 percent (Pinterest) and nearly 79.2 percent (Facebook) of U.S. mobile users (comScore, 2018). The top grossing iPhone gaming app, Fortnite, earns nearly US$2 million in revenue daily (Think Gaming, 2018). Mobile phones contributed to nearly US$116 billion in e-commerce sales in 2016 (eMarketer, 2016), and 33 percent of smartphone owners use mobile retail apps on a weekly basis, while 24 percent use them monthly (RetailMeNot and Forrester Research, 2015). As Americans engage mobile apps for a growing variety of activities, from social networking to gaming to shopping, a host of companies, often working in concert, collect and commoditize their personal data (Turow, 2017; Zuboff, 2019).

Such data collection raises concerns about data commodification and mismanagement; security risks like vulnerability to hacking; the sale of user data to advertisers and other third parties; and insufficient privacy protections facilitated by long, confusing, and weak privacy policies. The frequency of smartphone usage, concurrent with the use of mobile apps, renders such risks both ubiquitous and quotidian. Companies active in data-driven markets have incentives to downplay the commodification of user data and the fallout from faulty privacy protections and weak privacy policies related to their products. Such strategies aim to naturalize their data collection processes, cultivating a sense of helplessness among users, namely digital resignation (Draper and Turow, 2019; Turow and Couldry, 2018), bolstering surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019; 2015). Conversely, press coverage of privacy issues associated with mobile services can play an important public interest function by alerting users to potential privacy risks and, more broadly, providing the public with a sense of agency.

Through qualitative textual analysis of newspaper coverage of mobile app privacy issues between 2013 and 2016, this research sheds light on how the press frames privacy concerns within the mobile app context. Ultimately, such coverage can shape social norms and users’ expectations about how one’s personal information is collected, processed, and used, helping define appropriate data practices. Accordingly, this study contributes to the debate about the role of the press in alerting the public to privacy issues that carry significant public interest implications. The next section lays out the concept of media frames in relation to the press’s watchdog role. The subsequent section examines privacy frames specifically, emphasizing how the understudied mobile context introduces new dimensions and challenges for addressing privacy issues. Next, I describe the research methodology and discuss the findings, which illuminate key tensions in the coverage. The conclusion offers reflections about the role of the media in covering mobile privacy issues and implications for privacy debates in the policy arena.



Framing and the news media’s monitorial role

In their ideal form, news media serve a monitorial role, acting as a watchdog for abuses of power and violations of public trust, and informing the public about them. Fulfilling this role extends beyond mere reporting of facts; it also inevitably involves presenting and interpreting those facts and the issues they constitute using specific frames (Christians, et al., 2009; Reese, 2001). As a theoretical concept, frames draw on verbal and visual symbolic resources to meaningfully organize and structure the social world. In a news context, they organize stories or ideas in a way that embeds them with meaning in an attempt to capture the core of an issue (Goffman, 1974; Reese, 2001).

At a fundamental level, frames select and prioritize certain aspects of issues over others, implying particular ways of interpreting them (de Vreese and Lecheler, 2012). In so doing, frames can impact what the public thinks about and how it thinks about it (Entman, 2007), shaping public opinion about issues of public interest, with potential policy consequences (Ali and Puppis, 2018). For example, although the press initially framed the climate change debate around scientific consensus, because of political pressure it eventually reframed the issue as a subject of considerable disagreement. Public opinion largely followed suit (Williams and Delli Carpini, 2011). Similarly, framing matters in the privacy context since news coverage of privacy-related issues can influence users’ privacy behaviors. For instance, following the Snowden leaks, news framing of Tor software as a forum for illicit activities likely contributed to lower adoption rates of the privacy enhancing technology compared to others like PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and Duck-Duck-Go, which saw their rates soar (McDonald, 2015). More generally, information about privacy implications of various technologies can influence their adoption rates (Hampson and Jardine, 2016; Ireland, 2018). Although Internet users continue to disclose personal information in exchange for various services, they also consistently express concerns about online privacy issues (Kokolakis, 2017). Furthermore, despite pressures to disclose information online, some users take precautions to limit the effects of such self-disclosure, including limiting the availability of their social media profiles (Young and Quan-Haase, 2013). Ultimately, the public cares about privacy online. Aside from technical and legal solutions, educating and providing information to the public about privacy issues remains key to protecting users online (Barnes, 2006; Turow, et al., 2015).

The media, as watchdog, can play an important role in informing the public debate around online data collection and privacy. News coverage of privacy issues can help define what Nissenbaum (2010) calls “contextual integrity”: deeply contextual, constantly evolving informational norms that define the appropriateness of the flows of users’ personal data. We value privacy because it is intimately tied to everyday activities (Solove, 2002). Our informational flows underpin dynamics in human relationships, processes of self-development, and values like the exercise of free speech (Nissenbaum, 2010), intersecting with multiple dimensions of social and political life. Thus, the appropriateness of these flows is essential to human flourishing (Cohen, 2012). Since frames are organizing principles that “work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world” [1], potentially influencing individual attitudes and decision-making (de Vreese and Lecheler, 2012), they can contribute to how we understand and define the appropriateness of personal flows of information. When new technologies disrupt these norms, undermining contextual integrity, they manifest themselves as a violation of our privacy (Nissenbaum, 2010). Coverage of emerging technologies that collect and process user data can influence users’ privacy expectations and behaviors. Consequently, examining how news media frame privacy issues can reveal how they define the appropriateness of the personal flows of information and the degree to which they fulfill their monitorial role.

This role may be compromised since news frames are shaped by external social and institutional, including market, forces (Christians, et al., 2009; Reese, 2001). On the one hand, professional and institutional norms act to guard news coverage against bias and potential elite influence (Christians, et al., 2009). On the other hand, structural factors, including news media’s ownership structure and advertising dependency, can impact framing processes (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). In the privacy context, news institutions are embedded in processes of data extraction that characterize surveillance capitalism (Turow and Couldry, 2018; Zuboff, 2015). For example, they invest in digital advertising, while readers increasingly consume news through mobile apps (Lu, 2017; Pew Research Center, 2018). Mobile journalism has significantly grown in the last decade, becoming a key component of mobile ecosystems (Westlund, 2019). As news organizations expand digital services, they increasingly interact with and rely on digital intermediaries (Myllylahti, 2018; Nielsen and Ganter, 2018), and therefore on data collection practices. Thus, “the media play a double role: Not only do they communicate the societal [privacy] debate, but they also constitute its objects as media innovations over the course of their appropriation” [2]. Moreover, various elites can exert power by constructing frames which reflect their preferences (Ali and Puppis, 2018; Price, 2008). For instance, in response to growing political scrutiny, major tech companies have significantly invested in lobbying lawmakers and attempting to control the narrative about privacy (Popiel, 2018). These factors can undermine the press’s monitorial role, resulting in frames that reflect elite narratives at the expense of the public interest. The following section examines how the press has covered privacy issues and what dominant frames emerged in this coverage.



Privacy frames

Remarkably few studies examine media coverage of privacy issues (von Pape, et al., 2017). However, coverage of consumer privacy issues significantly increased over time, undergoing an evolution in the process. This increase may have its roots in the growth of data-driven industries, legislative initiatives targeting them, and technological innovation. For example, Cichy and Salge (2015) examine the evolution of privacy discourse in the New York Times between 1980 and 2014. They theorize that the media as a “barometer of privacy violations” [3] responds to disruptions to the contextual integrity of social norms around privacy. They discover that coverage intensifies when technological innovations prompt changes in personal information flows. For example, when the first iPhone and Android phones came out in the late 2000s, impacting personal information flows by accelerating the adoption of mobile phones and introducing data-thirsty third-party apps, privacy-related coverage of smartphones increased.

Yet coverage of emerging technologies can also result in fascination, curbing the critical stance of the press. For example, coverage of nanotechnology in German-language newspapers largely emphasized various potential benefits, countering the technophobia frequently attributed to the news media. References to risk were scant, and the press seemed to promote the new technology rather than assess it, raising questions about the fulfillment of its monitorial role (Donk, et al., 2012; Metag and Marcinkowski, 2014). Similarly, coverage of the commercial Internet was swept up in and fueled the economic optimism of the 1990s and 2000s that resulted first in massive investment and deregulation, and later the bursting of the tech bubble (Mosco, 2004; Streeter, 2005). However, such techno-optimism is not inevitable. For instance, media coverage of Twitter, when it was first emerging as a social media platform, balanced descriptive framing, with positive (e.g., civic use) and negative (e.g., information overload) evaluations (Arceneaux and Schmitz Weiss, 2010).

In the privacy context, evolving coverage of data-hungry technologies reveals both a growing attention to privacy issues (Cichy and Salge, 2015; Roznowski, 2003), and a shift in framing those issues. In one study, Roznowski (2003) finds that the framing of consumer privacy shifted from companies’ handling of and business practices around consumer data in the early 1990s to a focus on consumer privacy legislation, regulation, and industry privacy guidelines and practices. She characterizes this shift as one from the definitional aspects of consumer privacy to the practices surrounding it, with an emphasis on regulation as a potential solution. However, coverage of corporate privacy practices shifted from a negative to a more neutral tone. There is also evidence of an increasing marketization of discourse around privacy issues, namely their framing in market-exchange terms. For example, Fornaciari (2014a) finds that in the three decades since the 1980s mainstream news coverage of privacy has shifted from news frames emphasizing privacy as an intrinsic value to ones that stress the more practical, instrumental, and ultimately commercial importance of data security.

Similarly, in a study of the New York Times’ coverage of privacy concerns about corporate user data collection, Fornaciari (2014b) finds that instead of emphasizing the fundamental value of privacy, user data was framed as a commodity, revealing a shift from “the protection of privacy for its own sake, to the instrumental protection of personal data” [4]. Moreover, the news stories simplified privacy issues, failing to address how companies collect and utilize consumer data and mention strategies available to consumers to counteract these flows. They acknowledged the role obscure privacy policies played in data misuse, but also emphasized user agency and responsibility for their data. While they covered risks associated with targeted advertising, they omitted issues like price discrimination. More recently, von Pape, et al. (2017) find that German media coverage of privacy issues was critical of the issue, attributing responsibility for privacy concerns largely to the private sector. However, the focus predominantly fell on informational and physical rather than social dimensions of privacy. These gaps suggest that the press is at best uneven in fulfilling its watchdog role vis-à-vis privacy issues.

Yet, monitorial privacy coverage is important, particularly as the collection and processing of user data become central to capitalist economies (Zuboff, 2019), and increasingly pervasive. For example, privacy concerns related to mobile apps suggest new dimensions of contextual integrity of personal flows of information specific to mobile contexts, such as the corporeal privacy of the body in motion towards social ends or the physical privacy implicating objects ordered or delivered to consumers (Hartmann, 2011). Mobile contexts extend privacy issues to multiple domains of social life, and private companies’ mobile data collection practices pose concrete threats to the personal flows of information in these domains. For instance, a study of 100 Apple’s App store mobile apps’ privacy policies found that 80 percent collect user data, while 71 percent share that data with third parties. Moreover, 27 percent of the apps contained no privacy policy, contravening Apple’s own policies, implying that the company fails to enforce them (North, 2013). Another study examined the privacy policies of the most popular 600 health apps, and found that only 31 percent contained privacy policies, written at a sixteenth grade reading level, with two-thirds of them failing to mention the app itself (Sunyaev, et al., 2014).

As Turow (2017) argues, networks of data-mining companies and retailers collect immense amounts of user data via mobile apps, which facilitate new forms of discrimination between more valuable shoppers and less valuable ones. In the process, by offering apps that gamify store loyalty and user data surrender, these companies normalize the consumer’s role in their data collection practices. Yet, users remain largely unaware of the data collection processes that occur through their mobile apps, although some studies suggest they may change their privacy behaviors through nudges that raise this awareness (Almuhimedi, et al., 2015; Ireland, 2018). Arguably, news coverage of mobile app privacy issues may serve as such a nudge. Additionally, Turow, et al. (2015) find that the majority of Americans misunderstands the extent to which marketers harvest and commoditize their data. Although consumers express concerns over the pervasiveness of data collection, they feel resigned and powerless to stop it. In their recommendations, the authors emphasize the role of journalists, among others, in exposing privacy violators and clarifying complex privacy policies to the public. As Draper and Turow (2019) argue, examining and disrupting “the rhetorical strategies, tactics, and technical tools that industries use to atomize groups and convince the public about the inevitability of data use while they remain reassuring regarding the consequences of these practices” [5], is essential.

News coverage of privacy issues specifically related to mobile apps remains understudied. von Pape, et al. (2017) find that in covering smart technologies, including wearable devices, “the press explores what it means for informational and physical privacy when physical privacy becomes a function of informational privacy” [6]. However, mobile apps are both more mundane and more ubiquitous than smart technologies. Accordingly, this study examines how news media frame privacy issues in the mobile app context. Specifically, it explores how outlets cover mobile app data collection and potential violations of contextual integrity of personal information flows, and what solutions they offer to the public. Since news frames can contribute to, if not shape, the larger social debate around how to define the appropriateness of those flows, such coverage bears on the public understanding of mobile privacy issues.




Following previous studies examining coverage of privacy and emerging technologies (e.g., Arceneaux and Schmitz Weiss, 2010; Fornaciari, 2014b), this research examines news coverage of mobile app privacy issues via qualitative content analysis. Like other studies that constructed their sample based on circulation (von Pape, et al., 2017), I selected the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post because they have the top three largest print circulation rates in the U.S., respectively (Medium, 2015). They are also in the top 20 most visited U.S. news Web sites (Activate, 2017).

I construct my sample frame using “mobile AND app AND privacy” search terms within the body of the article from LexisNexis and Factiva for all sources. My dataset spans nearly three years, from 1 January 2013 to 19 November 2016. During this time the press grappled with many privacy issues, particularly in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations in 2013, offering a rich glimpse into evolving privacy coverage. The initial dataset consisted of 1,233 articles from the New York Times (n=276) and the Washington Post (n=206) from LexisNexis, and the Wall Street Journal (n=751) from Factiva. Like other studies of media coverage of emerging technologies and privacy issues (Donk, et al., 2012; Fornaciari, 2014b), the study drew a partial sample from this dataset. Following Arceneaux and Schmitz Weiss (2010), I used a purposeful sampling strategy based on the year and the source; a qualitative approach suited to critical analysis. Building on Fornaciari’s (2014b) qualitative content analysis of privacy framing over a 12-year period, which randomly sampled 10 articles for each year, my partial sample consisted of 10 percent of all articles. I constructed this sample to be representative of each news outlet’s proportion of the total dataset (NYT = 22 percent; WAPO = 17 percent; WSJ = 61 percent), with articles drawn at random for each outlet to increase credibility. I discarded and replaced 16 articles which were either duplicates or irrelevant, containing the search keywords but not addressing mobile app privacy. The process yielded a sample of 123 articles (Table 1).


Distribution of sample of articles 2013-2016
Note: Larger version of Table 1 available here.


News frames can be studied both inductively and deductively (de Vreese and Lecheler, 2012). Given the lack of research on mobile app privacy coverage, I utilized an inductive approach following other studies that drew on grounded theory to examine news coverage of understudied subjects. In this approach, “data are coded ... into as many categories as possible with continual adjustments as the researchers go through the process” [7]. My analysis of the articles was guided by privacy framing literature. Using qualitative, software-supported textual analysis in Atlas.ti, I coded the sample, attuned to references to privacy violations, privacy policies, portrayal of data as a commodity, conceptualization of privacy rights, and potential privacy solutions. For instance, initial codes like “Contradictory Privacy Behaviors,” “Privacy Apathy,” “Tradeoff Fallacy,” and “Trust” were grouped under the “Privacy Attitudes and Decision-making” frame in the final analysis. Similarly, codes like “Data Discrimination,” “Deceptive Data Practices,” “Privacy Policy Obfuscation,” and “Privacy Violation” fell under the final “Privacy Threats” frame. Since some quotes overlapped with more than one frame, I validated the final frames that emerged in the analysis by ensuring that quotes associated with a particular frame related to other quotes within that frame, ensuring the frames were internally coherent and consistent.





Five predominant frames that typify the mobile app privacy coverage in the sample emerged from the analysis (Table 2): 1) Preserving Privacy, 2) Economics of Privacy, 3) Privacy Attitudes and Decision-making, 4) More Pervasive Data Collection, and 5) Privacy Threats. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of frame quotes within an article by the number of articles. The subsections below address these frames in detail.


Distribution of number of quotes associated with each frame from 2013 to 2016 from 123 articles
Note: Larger version of Table 2 available here.



Distribution of number of quotes associated with each frame
Note: Larger version of Figure 1 available here.


Preserving privacy

The most prevalent frame addresses efforts to maintain and preserve user privacy, including: federal regulatory and legislative initiatives, public and private sector collaborations, and self-regulatory initiatives, including technical solutions like privacy apps and voluntary protections introduced by companies. It also encompasses arguments for and against these various solutions.

As Roznowski (2003) found, privacy regulation is prominent. Articles document regulatory efforts to curb data collection and to increase consumer control of their data, such as the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) requirement to include a do-not-track option in mobile browsers and for apps to protect consumer information. They also cover instances when regulators address illegal data collection practices, such as when the FTC found that the company Path illegally collected data on underage users through its app (Wyatt, 2013). Yet, except for instances when regulatory efforts forestalled or addressed privacy violations, the articles rarely discuss whether privacy regulation would sufficiently address the problem it sought to fix or whether the private sector would comply. Often, they emphasize how regulation provides some user control over information, rather than asking whether it can secure privacy more broadly — only one article frames privacy regulation as safeguarding “a basic American right that was not dependent on the kindness of app makers” (Singer, 2016).

Overwhelmingly, however, references to self-regulatory solutions predominate. The articles occasionally critique the self-regulatory regime, noting that users are at the mercy of corporate privacy policies: “With no regulation, the companies are writing the privacy rules as they go” (Dwoskin and Rusli, 2015). However, many also suggest that with federal regulation “the innovation engine may seize” (Downes, 2016). Ultimately, the majority simply describes various private sector efforts to address privacy concerns, frequently in a positive light. For example, the articles discuss Facebook’s plans to introduce “a dashboard that would make it easier to find and update a range of privacy settings” (Goel, 2014), Mozilla’s Firefox browser’s ability to block trackers (Olivarez-Giles, 2016), or they praise efforts to screen apps within app stores for data security. Only occasionally does coverage reference the larger context which motivates the companies to enact these privacy protections, like regulatory scrutiny of Facebook’s privacy practices or investigations of Google’s anti-competitive behavior in the smartphone market. Thus, the articles frame the initiatives as beneficent privacy improvements rather than responses to external pressures, minimizing these companies’ complicity in undermining user privacy.

The coverage also foregrounds technological solutions, including privacy apps like Signal and WhatsApp and stronger encryption: “Technologists are capable of building tools ... that go beyond disappearing messaging apps and that could protect everyone’s privacy” (Bilton, 2013b). While a couple articles note the vulnerability of some of these apps, the coverage tends to promote them as solutions for users concerned about their privacy, emphasizing their ability to ensure the secure and private transfer of data.

Public advocacy groups efforts, such as “a badge icon to alert parents to the advertising and data-collection practices of apps aimed at children” (Wyatt, 2013), or privacy notices designed to inform users about how their data is used by mobile applications, appear least frequently within this frame. Articles that mention them often fail to inform readers that such notices are largely ineffective (Turow, et al., 2015). Overall, the articles portray public advocacy groups either as praising federal regulation, gaining small victories like more user-friendly privacy notices, or abandoning talks with the industry, as in their efforts to push for consumer consent in the context of facial recognition apps. The role of such groups emerges as supplemental and limited.

More pervasive data collection

Consistent with Cichy and Salge’s (2015) observation that privacy-related coverage increases when new technologies emerge, this frame draws attention to new forms of data gathering that continue to grow, such as geolocation, personalization, and facial recognition. Often, the articles emphasize that while data collection makes products more useful, it “can also potentially be used to make inferences about people’s financial status, addictions, medical conditions, fitness, politics or religion in ways they may not want or like” (Singer and Merrill, 2015). However, occasionally, a dose of fascination enters this frame, particularly about predictive analytics. For instance, one article describes Foursquare as follows:

[It] works in the background to corral different pieces of information [...] and then makes suggestions for what to do. ‘It looks like you’re near the Sightglass Coffee,’ the company’s app says if I walk by a coffee shop in the morning, ‘Your friend Dennis has been there and recommends the cappuccino.’ Now imagine all your apps start doing this? [...] Your phone automatically could keep emails, texts and phone calls at bay while you’re sitting down for dinner with the family, all by sensing that your spouse and children’s phones are in the dining room at the same time in the evening (Bilton, 2013a).

Even if few articles (12) articulate this view, it nevertheless reflects a complex social relationship to these technologies; one fraught with both fear and fascination.

Economics of privacy

The “economics of privacy” frame aligns with Fornaciari’s (2014a, 2014b) observation about the evolution of coverage of privacy as a general social right to a more commercial orientation. The frame situates data and privacy as commodities, subject to myriad market calculations and exchanges. However, tensions emerge within this frame, as companies strive to perform the difficult calculus of how to preserve privacy and data security to avoid alienating users, while offering the personalization and convenience that attracts them to their products. For instance, one article notes the costs of user trust: “as Apple has dug in on privacy, the company has grappled with how to deliver the convenient experiences customers have come to expect from devices and Web services” (Peterson and Tsukayama, 2015).

Others describe the costs of obtaining user consent each time marketers collect user data to offer targeted ads, which ultimately subsidize free mobile apps. One article quotes a Republican senator stating that “Consumers would revolt if this was the case, and applications could be rendered useless [...] Worse yet, free applications that rely on advertising could be pushed by the consent requirement to become fee-based” (Singer, 2013). Advertising execs invoke the economics of mobile advertising to push against privacy regulation: “We are in favor of more privacy [...] but it has to be done within the nuances of how mobile advertising works so it can scale” (Singer, 2013). Articles articulating this frame quote executives who argue that privacy regulation inevitably inhibits business growth and, by thwarting data collection, limits their ability to deliver better services to users. Sometimes, they mention the ability of users to opt out should they find data collection overly intrusive.

The frame foregrounds the profit-drive that engenders revised privacy policies, new forms of data collection, and other privacy-undermining behavior; all of which facilitates either greater personalization or more precise ad targeting (or both). The articles also reference other consequences of treating consumer data as a commodity. For example, they highlight how implementing app privacy policies increases companies’ liability for privacy violations, thus incentivizing new app companies to forego such protections. At the same time, these articles note that offering consumers control over their data and maximizing transparency about its use can differentiate companies from their competitors, increasing user trust and therefore loyalty to the company’s brand. The implication underlying such claims is that the market will address the public’s privacy concerns.

Privacy attitudes and decision-making

This frame tackles the role of app users, whose personal information both fuels and is threatened by pervasive mobile data collection. The coverage tries to make sense of competing user impulses for privacy and for convenience, and their mistrust of data collection versus their failure to read privacy policies and make informed decisions. Some of this coverage likens the surrender of user privacy to a market exchange. Such coverage often reflects the views of the app makers and advertisers, exemplified by this quote from the chief counsel for Interactive Advertising Bureau: “People are always willing to trade privacy and information when they see the direct value of sharing that information” (Singer, 2015). Articles draw attention to the benefits of new apps, including innovation and convenience, as counterpoints to privacy concerns. For instance, one article notes that new keyboarding apps available on iPhones provide “more reasons to opt in to data collection and data sharing in the name of convenience” (Tsukayama, 2014).

However, occasionally articles problematize such trade-offs, emphasizing how conflicted and powerless users are about them. Often, the articles emphasize user consent as the essential factor legitimizing data collection, although several (16) question the likelihood of obtaining truly informed consent. These articles acknowledge that users either fail to read or comprehend privacy policies and the data collection practices they describe: “[w]hile savvy users understand that using mobile devices entails some privacy trade-offs [...] most don’t realize the extent to which such information is collected and distributed” (Dwoskin, 2015).

A theme of user resignation (Turow, et al., 2015) runs through some of this coverage, describing user frustration and powerlessness with increasingly pervasive data collection. For instance, one article describes a user’s reaction to Uber collecting data before one uses the app to hail a ride:

“I think it’s none of their business where I am up until the moment when I elect to use their service,” Mr. Allen said. Nevertheless, he said he planned to continue using Uber, at least for the moment, because he found it more convenient than taxis. “Data is being collected on you all the time. ... You either don’t have a clue about it, or you’re resigned to the fact that this is the way it is in 2015.” (Singer, 2015)

Although two articles locate user resistance, describing studies that show some users will uninstall apps they find too invasive, the coverage tends to note the tension between the feeling of lack of control over one’s data and its ongoing surrender. Some simply emphasize the inevitability of privacy’s loss:

Facebook told the FTC about its new tracking procedures, but didn’t actually have to get consent from users. Why? Because the fine print had been in the privacy policy for years. A billion users have already, mostly unwittingly, given their permission. What you can do: Nothing, unless you and the people you care about leave Facebook. Which you won’t. (Fowler, 2014)

Ultimately, the articles in this frame point to user consent as an essential component of data collection and emphasize convenience and innovation as important tradeoffs. However, some also draw attention to the power tech incumbents wield in mobile data exchanges.

Privacy threats

While the “More Pervasive Data Collection” frame emphasizes new forms of data collection, the “Privacy Threats” frame focuses on the public consequences of data collection. Coverage of mobile app privacy calls attention to a variety of threats to privacy, including: privacy violations, data discrimination, obfuscating privacy policies, and data hacks. This frame represents the press attempting to fulfill its most basic role, namely serving as a watchdog for abuses of the public interest (Christians, et al., 2009). The coverage reports privacy violations, such as Path’s collection of underage user data through its mobile app. It documents confusing or contradictory privacy policies that promise data security, but also secure the right to sell the data to third-parties. Notably, contrary to Fornaciari’s (2014b) observation that privacy coverage failed to address discriminatory uses of data, several articles (6) address practices that involve customer segmentation in buckets like “‘low-income elders’ or ‘small town, shallow pockets’” (Singer, 2015), suggesting the privacy coverage continues to evolve.




News coverage of privacy issues in mobile app contexts tends to favor certain solutions over others, emphasizes privacy tradeoffs over privacy rights, and balances user powerlessness with mobile app convenience and innovation. The predominance of the “preserving privacy” frame reveals that the press foregrounds potential solutions to safeguarding user privacy. However, contrary to what Roznowski (2003) found, regulation is a distant second — a response to the most egregious privacy violations. Instead, the coverage emphasizes self-regulatory efforts, such as clearer privacy notices, privacy apps providing end-to-end encryption, and tech sector initiatives to offer data controls to users. Often, though not always, coverage of private initiatives fails to note the regulatory and economic pressures behind them, unduly absolving companies initiating limited privacy protections from contributing to privacy problems in the first place. The lack of focus on public advocacy groups’ efforts and near nonexistent discussion of privacy rights’ discourse likely reflects the larger structural, political, and economic forces that influence the attention of the press (Christians, et al., 2009), including the power of media elites to shape media discourse (Ali and Puppis, 2018; Freedman, 2015), or the tech sector in this context.

Similarly, while the “economics of privacy” frame illuminates the tension between market incentives to offer privacy controls while simultaneously collecting more user data, it ultimately conceptualizes user privacy and data as commodities, naturalizing them as subject to market exchanges. This conforms to Fornaciari’s (2014a, 2014b) observation about the growing marketization of privacy coverage, with data increasingly treated as a commodity. Concurrently, market mechanisms, like competition, creative destruction, and innovation emerge as the solution to most privacy demands users may have. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, attention to these mechanisms forecloses on regulatory intervention as a legitimate response because it threatens to undermine mobile app market dynamism.

Users play a minor role in these exchanges, alternating between powerlessness and complicity in driving demand for data-thirsty applications, although consumer complaints occasionally inspire limited private sector privacy initiatives. The privacy attitudes and decision-making frame nuances users’ role, engaging the difficult-to-resolve tensions between a mistrust of data collection and a desire for control of one’s information on the one hand, and failure to read or understand privacy policies and the desire for convenience on the other. Such conflicts exemplify key themes in the larger privacy debate, namely the privacy paradox, the trade-off fallacy, and user privacy resignation (Turow, et al., 2015). However, although some articles capture user resignation, the call to accept the exchange of data for app services bleeds into this frame. This may reflect the influence of powerful advertisers and tech elites in the privacy debate, but also likely indicates the news media’s inability to find an alternative narrative that satisfyingly resolves some of these tensions — leaving an opening for other stakeholders, like public interest groups, to do so. Similarly, the coverage captures the increasing pervasiveness of data collection via mobile technologies, often emphasizing potentially negative social consequences. Such concerns are sometimes peppered with a fascination with mobile apps’ potential to make life easier. Even if few articles express it, this coverage reveals the power of the convenience narrative around mobile app technologies.

The “privacy threats” frame contains the most internally consistent coverage, suggesting the press fulfills its basic monitorial role (Christians, et al., 2009) by exposing privacy violations and duplicitous data collection practices. The documentation of discriminatory data practices exemplifies this; a departure from Fornaciari’s (2014b) findings to the contrary in the wider privacy coverage context. Thus, like processes of data collection, coverage of privacy threats evolves and the press indeed serves as a “barometer of privacy violations” [8], documenting technological infringements on the contextual integrity of personal flows of information (Nissenbaum, 2010). However, while crucial, tracking privacy violations is insufficient if the self-regulatory regime that contributes to them remains largely normalized.




Mobile data collection occurs in a dynamic universe, where technology evolves, practices become normalized, regulatory climates change, and network effects and innovation entice users to give up more data. As the news media cover privacy issues associated with mobile apps, they themselves become increasingly embedded in mobile markets, relying on digital intermediaries for accessing audiences (Nielsen and Ganter, 2018; Westlund, 2019). Nevertheless, the news media attempt to capture this complex ecosystem, prioritizing efforts to safeguard privacy and exploring the multifaceted ways in which user data is increasingly and pervasively mined. The coverage documents ongoing privacy violations, acting as a watchdog by alerting users to data insecurity inherent to data-driven business models.

Concurrently, the coverage tends to highlight private sector solutions, sometimes bypassing the problem of privacy by recommending users get the best deal in exchange for their data. This framing suggests the ongoing marketization of privacy discourses and the potential influence of powerful advertisers and tech elites in privacy debates. It also raises key questions about the impact of news organizations’ growing participation in these markets on their privacy coverage. If frames organize stories or ideas around meaningful narratives (de Vreese and Lecheler, 2012) with the potential to influence public privacy behaviors (e.g., McDonald, 2015), user resignation in the face of data collection regimes will likely grow.

Ultimately, as data-intensive technologies proliferate and evolve, coverage emphasizing egregious data hacks, contradictory user privacy behaviors, and economic forces underpinning data collection remains crucial. However, it sidelines a more basic discussion of what the disruptions of personal information flows by these technologies imply for society at large. By normalizing the marketization of privacy at the expense of privacy rights discourses, such coverage also precludes potential alternative solutions that extend beyond private sector initiatives or last-resort regulation. Accordingly, public advocacy, think tanks, and activist groups can play a vital role in expanding the discursive contours of a fairly-congested privacy debate, largely by companies invested in preserving the status quo.

These findings are qualified by the study’s limited sample, both in terms of the number of articles analyzed and the number of sources from which those articles were drawn. Although the sources are prominent newspapers, a wider variety, including magazines and online tech blogs, would have ensured greater generalization and provided a more complete account. Moreover, the focus on U.S. publications raises important questions about whether news coverage differs in different regulatory regimes or in contexts with different social attitudes towards privacy. Finally, the sample frame does not encompass significant privacy-related developments, like the 2018 Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data scandal, the adoption of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe, or the growing bipartisan political scrutiny of the tech sector’s growing power. Like the Snowden disclosures, these events may represent a critical juncture in which the scope of the privacy debate and the breadth of policy solutions could expand. The press can play an important role in expanding that scope. End of article


About the author

Pawel Popiel is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania.
E-mail: ppopiel [at] asc [dot] upenn [dot] edu



The author would like to thank First Monday’s reviewers for their comments and Joseph Turow for his feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript.



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Editorial history

Received 17 April 2019; revised 18 August 2019; accepted 30 September 2019.

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Terms of public service: Framing mobile privacy discourses
by Pawel Popiel.
First Monday, Volume 24, Number 11 - 4 November 2019
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i11.10005

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