Privacy, Justice, and Personal Digital Traces: Implications for Psychology and Society

Patrick Sweeney (Center) Receiving the 2022 Student Dissertation in Media Psychology & Technology Award. Photo Credit Kathryn Stamoulis

My dissertation examined two controversies related to the use of information from social media in psychological research and application: studies of face-based gaydar and Cambridge Analytica’s use of psychographic targeting. I carried out a critical conceptual analysis of the construct of face-based gaydar, an empirical analysis of the alleged use of psychographic targeting by the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 United States presidential election, and an integrative analysis of how the constructs of justice and ethics apply to emergent uses of information from social media and big data. 

I argued that the studies of face-based gaydar and the use of psychographic targeting shared an underlying conceptual paradigm as they both attempted to extrapolate intimate information from personal digital traces found on social media. I also argued that these two cases raised questions about the just and ethical practice of psychological research. 

In this article, I discuss how three key conclusions from my dissertation relate to the U.S. Supreme Court’s monumental and radical decision to repeal existing legal precedents that had conferred the right for individuals in the U.S. to have an abortion and the subsequent criminalization of abortion in many states. 

One of the precedents that were overturned, the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, had been issued in 1973 and had held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides a fundamental right to privacy that protects a person’s right to have an abortion. Before the decision, concerns about privacy had already been increasing alongside the growing gathering of personal digital traces from sources such as social media, smartphones, wearable technologies, telemedicine, and sensor-equipped environments. Data from these sources are frequently collated and sold to any entities willing to pay, as well as turned over to law enforcement agencies. 

My Results

  1. Uses of digital data and information from social media that may seem innocuous can have dangerous unintended consequences. For example, the collection of information about sexual orientation and images of people’s faces from social media for use in psychological research can be used to promulgate false ideas about physical differences between straight and gay people and inadvertently contribute to anti-LGBT discrimination. In addition, gathering information about people’s personality profiles in otherwise fun and seemingly harmless personality quizzes on Facebook can be exploited by political actors such as Cambridge Analytica in attempts to manipulate voters and subvert democracy. 
  2. Examining information about people’s bodies or sensitive information such as their sexuality or psychological profile may require additional ethical considerations or constraints. For example, research that involves images of people’s faces and information about their sexual orientation should require more robust ethical deliberation (for a more in-depth discussion of this issue, see Sweeney, 2017). Likewise, detailed psychological profiles gathered online for legitimate psychological research can be abused by nefarious political actors in attempts to prey on people’s fears and shortcut rational deliberation and decision-making. 
  3. These previous two conclusions lead to the need for what I term information justice, a robust framework for the use of digital data and information from social media in both scientific and applied contexts. Existing ethics guidelines for research and legal and normative constraints on the use of these forms of information have not adapted concerns for privacy, anonymity, informed consent, and autonomy of persons to emergent digital contexts. 

Some Implications

When the Dobbs v. Jackson decision was released, abortion became illegal in at least 13 states (Jiménez, 2022). So-called trigger laws came into effect that encourage the surveillance and scrutinization of people’s bodies and healthcare decisions, often relying on their personal digital traces. For example, a mother’s private messages sent to her daughter via Facebook Messenger have been turned over to law enforcement in a felony case in Nebraska (Zuckerman, 2022). Other concerns have been raised about the possible use of data from search engines, period tracking apps, digital payment platforms, telemedicine, and mobile location data as evidence in the criminalization of people’s attempts to access abortions (e.g. Tolentino, 2022)

Part of what the new landscape post-Dobbs v. Jackson highlights is how the field of media psychology and technology is not only increasingly central to the concerns of almost all other areas of psychology but also how it is increasingly crucial for understanding and navigating contemporary society. Our social environment grows to be more media-saturated every day, and attacks on democracy, autonomy, privacy, and social justice continue to increase. The field of media psychology and technology has a responsibility to utilize our unique perspective and insights to fight for information justice and produce more ethical and humane uses of media and technology. 


Jiménez, J. (2022, June 24). What are trigger laws? And which states have them? The New York Times. 

Sweeney, P. (2017). Images of Faces Gleaned from Social Media in Social Psychological Research on Sexual Orientation. In M. Zimmer & K. Kinder-Kurlanda (Eds.), Internet Research Ethics for the Social Age: New Challenges, Cases, and Contexts (pp. 287–292). Peter Lang.

Tolentino, J. (2022, June 24). We’re Not Going Back to the Time Before Roe. We’re Going Somewhere Worse. The New Yorker.

Zuckerman, E. (2022, September 8). How a private message gets you sent to prison. Prospect Magazine.

(Editors’ Note: Patrick Sweeney received the 2022 Student Dissertation in Media Psychology & Technology Award of the APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology for his outstanding dissertation on Information Justice: The Histories and Futures of Technology and Social Categories)

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