Property Shark and “Contextual Integrity”: Where real estate obsession and privacy academia intersect

March 4th, 2008 by Grace Meng

Recently, I was having dinner with some friends when the topic of Property Shark came up. My friends, being homeowners, were disturbed that someone could simply go online, type in their address, and find out who the owners were and precisely what they had paid for it. One friend exclaimed, “I don’t want people to know how much money I have!” When I pointed out that the information was public record, and that before Property Shark, anyone could have gone down to City Hall and found the same information, he didn’t care. It still bothered him.

For all our talk of “privacy,” of how it’s being violated all over the place, of how it’s already lost, it’s not even clear what we mean when we say “privacy.” We, as a society, might have agreed that it is good public policy for real estate records to be public so that potential buyers can make sure sellers actually own the property they’re selling. Capitalism can’t thrive if you can’t be sure you own what you own. But when we theoretically made this agreement, we certainly didn’t imagine a world where “public” means available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Professor Helen Nissenbaum, who recently presented at the DIMACS Data Privacy Workshop, has proposed that we think about “contextual integrity” rather than “privacy.” She argues that it’s more useful to consider what’s appropriate in each context rather than assuming there is a blanket “privacy” standard applicable to all situations.

That makes sense to me. My friend wasn’t arguing that the information shouldn’t be public record. Rather, he wasn’t comfortable with that information being accessed so easily online.

Personally, in the universe of privacy breaches, Property Shark doesn’t seem so problematic, but it’s certainly helpful as the Common Datatrust Foundation works on privacy problems to remember that “privacy” doesn’t have a singular meaning. One of CDTF’s goals for this year is to create some privacy standards for companies and other data collectors that acknowledge that information flow can’t just have a on/off, public/private spigot. It’s obvious that our world and our needs are more complex than that. After all, sometimes it’s hard to know even what we want when we clamor for more privacy. Even my friend, when pressed, admitted that the next time he was looking to buy a house, the first thing he would do is go to Property Shark.

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3 Responses to “Property Shark and “Contextual Integrity”: Where real estate obsession and privacy academia intersect”

  1. Ian says:

    The thing is, a few people had a lot of this information and kept it in tightly guarded in the past, making you rely on your broker, their broker, an appraiser, lawyers, lenders who each had a piece of the puzzle, but the masses didnt have this information to make an informed decision about their real estate purchase. Now they can run their own comps, see what the last price paid was, view permits and violations filed on the property, whether its near a toxic site and more on places like or even zillow for some of this, making what is probably the biggest investment most people make into an informed one. This is the democratization of information transparency.

  2. Grace Meng says:

    I agree completely; democracy depends on open, accessible information. I just think that as we move forward as a society in using new technology to make information more accessible, we do risk a backlash from people who worry about their privacy. I’d like to see a more nuanced public dialogue when we just shout for more privacy, and it might be easier if we can identify what makes people uncomfortable and explore ways that we can deal with that while still preserving the openness of information that’s good for society.

  3. […] Now that the Promised Land of collating all the world’s data approaches on the horizon, will that change people’s willingness to make data publicly accessible? What I share on my personal website might not be okay rearing its head in new contexts I never intended. As we’ve said elsewhere, when talking about privacy, context is everything. […]

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