BOX 2.2

The Anchoring Vignette Approach to Grounding Discussions of Privacy

Developed by committee member Gary King and others, an anchoring vignette is a brief description of a specific situation involving personal information.1 Organized into related sets in which a range of privacy considerations are manifest, the vignettes help to collect, articulate, and organize intuitions about privacy in a more precise and empirical fashion; clarify assumptions about privacy; empirically document views on privacy; and serve as a good tool for illustrating, expressing, and communicating existing concepts of privacy.

Vignettes have been extensively used for conducting actual surveys and in helping develop actual survey instruments, but in the context of this report they help to define the concepts so that all participants in a privacy discussion have the same frame of reference. Although they are not intended to suggest a particular policy to adopt, anchoring vignettes help to provide a lingua franca for privacy and so they may be of use to citizens in attaining a better understanding of public policy regarding privacy. The vignettes form a continuum along which various policy scenarios can be placed and in that sense can help to frame questions that might be asked about any given policy.

To illustrate, consider the issue of privacy with respect to criminal charges. A set of useful vignettes might be as follows:

  1. [Jonathan] was arrested on charges of assault and battery last year. He lives in a county that stores records of criminal charges at the police headquarters, where there is no public access.


1Gary King, Christopher J.L. Murray, Joshua A. Salomon, and Ajay Tandon, “Enhancing the Validity and Cross-cultural Comparability of Survey Research,” American Political Science Review 98(1):191-207, 2004, available at See also Gary King and Jonathan Wand, “Comparing Incomparable Survey Responses: New Tools for Anchoring Vignettes,” Political Analysis, forthcoming, 2007, available at Extensive examples and other information can be found at the Anchoring Vignettes Web site, at The committee thanks Dan Ho and Matthew Knowles, who assisted in the development of material on anchoring vignettes presented to the committee during its open data-gathering sessions.

as a possible privacy violator, one might be concerned about surveillance of work or about drug testing. By contrast, in the context of friends, acquaintances, and neighbors as possible privacy violators, one might be concerned about personal secrets, nudity, sex, medical information, and invasiveness.56

The kinds of social roles and relationships involved are as central as


In thinking through who might be a possible privacy violator, it also helps to consider parties with whom one might be willing to share information. Although in some sense, one is the complement of the other, in practice the complement is more likely to be fuzzy, with zones of more gray and less gray rather than sharp boundaries between black and white.

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