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Husband and wife team — who are both U professors — explore privacy in a complex and changing online world.

By Melinda Rogers, media relations manager, S.J. Quinney College of Law

There are few secrets in today’s digital world: People more and more live their lives online every day, depending on the internet for work, to pay bills, stay informed on news and to keep connected to friends and family. Few people think about the data that is traced with the digital footprint they leave behind online — and they make assumptions that their privacy won’t be compromised in the process.

But online tracks left through providing health information, using social media, accessing financial and credit information and developing personal relationships and public lives make people easy prey for identity theft, hacking and even government surveillance. What’s at stake for communities if privacy is misunderstood, misdirected or misused?

Those questions and themes are at the heart of a new book released this month by a pair of University of Utah professors. Leslie Francis authored the new book, “Privacy: What Everyone Needs to Know,” with her husband John Francis. Both are professors at the U: Leslie Francis is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Distinguished Alfred C. Emery Professor and also serves as director of the Center for Law and Biomedical Sciences. John Francis is a research professor in the U’s Department of Political Science.

The book isn’t the first collaboration between the couple, whose overlapping research interests include a broad spectrum of subjects such as law, philosophy, political science, regulatory policy and bioethics. The couple is also currently working on a book about public health surveillance and data use. Their latest book comes as privacy issues remain a hot topic in the news and public policy sphere.

“With respect to everything from voter records to health, to tax records of political candidates to data security, privacy is on everybody’s radar screen. It’s been something from the perspective of bioethics that I’ve been writing about for a long time,” said Leslie Francis, noting her husband has extensive interest in comparative regulatory policy, particularly policy involving the European Union, that complements her bioethics perspective on privacy issues.

“Privacy seemed a natural thing for us to collaborate on,” she said.

“In my judgment, why this book is of value is that it makes the case that while our understanding of privacy continues to evolve what remains the same is the importance we give to privacy in so many areas of our lives,” added John Francis.

The book is part of a new series released from Oxford University Press on a variety of complex topics that are authored in a reader-friendly way. Other books in the “What Everyone Needs to Know” series explore climate change, hydrofracking, cybersecurity, inequality and drones.

Leslie Francis’ research on privacy spans decades, including several publications on the topic during her tenure at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She has written many published works about what privacy means as well as papers on issues of justice and data use. She was involved in federal policymaking when she served on the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics, where she co-chaired the group’s privacy subcommittee.

Her husband’s resume is equally impressive. John Francis’ recent publications include articles on federalism and emerging rights, on HIV and the importance of public health policies over criminalization, on obligations of states when law enforcement fails and on the protection of data in public health policy.

The authors said they hope their latest collaboration will encourage others to think about issues related to the complex issue of privacy — and explain the subject in an accessible way to the public.

“The takeaway is that privacy is complicated and frequently changing,” said Leslie Francis. “Another takeaway that is generally unique is that in the U.S. we talk about privacy as sectoral — that is — one set of rules apply to your health data and a different set apply to credit reports and still another set apply to your education records.

The book “is an effort to bring these varying privacy rules all together in one place,” Leslie Francis said.