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DL Seminar | Privacy Concerns on Transnational Tech Platforms

By Shaine Leibowitz | MS Student, Cornell Tech



Illustration by Gary Zamchick | DLI Chronicler

Maggie Jack, a PhD candidate at Cornell University, presented “Localization of

Transnational Tech Platforms and Liminal Privacy Practices” at the Digital Life Seminar on April 11th. Jack conducted her research with Pang Sovannaroth and Nicki Dell. With her background with a BA from Harvard University, MS from Cambridge University, and professional experience at an investment bank, Jack is able to provide a multidisciplinary view. In this presentation, Jack used Facebook as the specific example of a transnational tech platform and Cambodia as an example of a community moving further into an online environment. In these communities, Facebook catalyzes cultural change, and there is insufficient localization resulting in marginalized users having high privacy risks.


A major problem that exists for these users is setting their privacy settings. The English settings on Facebook are not easily translated into Khmer, the main language of Cambodia with a literacy rate of about 80%. The word for privacy in the settings is ‘peap aikajun’ which refers to private property. Few Cambodians actually use or understand this term. In general, Khmer language on Facebook tends to be overly academic and hard to understand. Therefore, most opt to use Facebook in English. This is obviously problematic for those that are not bilingual. Jack’s findings show that there are additional vulnerabilities for minority populations such as older adults. None of the older adults, that is at least 50 years old, felt comfortable setting up their Facebook accounts. Their accounts are set up by cell phone shop owners or adult children without any privacy settings. They tend to not even have passwords as they are difficult to remember. This group tends to be less educated as their education was interrupted by the war.


Jack demonstrates why we should care about these issues. The European Union has

recently enacted the General Data Protection Regulation. The situation with Cambridge

Analytica brought to light the unregulated power of Facebook on society. The user base of

Facebook is still growing. In fact, the site had a 9.6% growth last year. The growth comes from a diverse group of countries none of which come from the Global North. Moreover, the top market is in Asia especially in Southeast Asia with a penetration rate of 61%. Even John Oliver has covered how in Myanmar they use the terms internet and Facebook interchangeably. In addition to her research, Jack points to research papers that research privacy and technology. For example, “Privacy in Context” by Helen Nissenbaum discusses contextual integrity and how privacy look dramatically different in different contexts. She also refers to “Unpacking privacy for a networked world” by Leysia Palen and Paul Dourish as well as “Embodying values in technology”.


Diving into her personal research, she conducted interviews in Cambodia. In Cambodia, the population generally is middle lower class, identifies as Khmer, and rapidly adopt internet tools. In fact, the nation is amongst the top 10 for most growth in internet usage, and Facebook by far the most popular platform there. The interviews took place in Phnom Penh, rural NW Cambodia, and rural Southern Cambodia. The questions asked about demographics, educational background, medical visits, comfort with technology, how participants use Facebook, if they use it for work purposes, share mobile phones or accounts with family, face any challenges with privacy, and had specific questions for a subset of the participants who were experts in privacy. She shared with us some quotations that spoke to the general outlooks of privacy in Cambodia. One 34 year old male believed that due to the community-based and outdoor living, there is a habit of expecting things to be public and everything is visible to everybody. A 22 year old female learned about the Western idea of privacy by going to English schools and educated in the Western curriculum but not in public schools.


In general, there is trust in Facebook in Cambodia as scandals had not been covered

widely. Though, there are new anxieties concerning uncertainty about how Facebook works and the possibility of someone stealing your information. Additionally, a liminal moment revolves around car accidents. Some find the news of car accidents to be one of biggest benefits of Facebook while others do not like seeing such violent footage. There is more to be done to make the people of Cambodia to feel more safe.


Jack provides some suggestions to build a safer tool. There should be a better effort for

platform translation by hiring local staff and utilizing images, use cases, and experimental

instructions (language-pairs, etc) to make tool understandable and privacy settings clear. Qualitative research needs to be conducted to determine cultural impact. These suggestions for similar efforts to localize platforms effectively apply to other transnational tech platforms.

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