A mere 25 years ago, we could simply take the receiver off the cradle of the phone and make sure no one disturbed us. Today, with half the global population hooked on Facebook, Hangout, Messenger, Viber, WhatsApp, Zoom and myriad other instant messaging apps, it’s almost impossible to go off the grid unless we literally turn off all our mobile digital devices!
These apps intrude into our privacy at all times of the day, in an incessant barrage that makes us check the message notifications like a zombie every few minutes, giving us a warm fuzzy feeling of being connected to all our friends and family while we remain disconnected from our real surroundings. Such digital addiction is a worldwide malaise that is certainly eating into our real work productivity and physical social interaction but those are matters of concern at another level. However, the real intrusion of privacy is not that we can be reached on our messaging apps at any time virtually anywhere in the world, but that all these messaging and social media platforms know so much about who we are, what we do, what we like or hate, who we interact with socially or in business and so forth—it’s like these platforms know more about us than we care to know about ourselves.
A humorous meme made the rounds online a few years back where a regular bloke tries to order a pizza online when the chat bot suggests what pizza to order with what toppings, drinks and side orders, and which credit card to use for payment based on that guy’s profile information compiled by the online platform. A few years ago, that meme got us a few chuckles but today the joke is on us! Corporate behemoths like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft know so many zillions of tiny details about us that it’s truly disturbing. And these details get packaged and sold everyday as Big Data—without our knowledge and permission. On top of all these, there is always the threat of cyber snoopers and criminals hacking such online platforms and stealing our innermost secrets such as passwords and PINs of financial assets, private utterances or worse. Governments and legislatures around the world have expressed grave concerns regarding the collection and dissemination of private information of unsuspecting individuals by corporations for profit. The CEOs of the big five digital corporations mentioned earlier have been called to appear before the lawmakers in the USA, the UK, EU and many other countries and economic blocs to explain what they are doing to prevent loss of privacy while all have been fined by the regulators at one time or another.
Most people use online platforms without realising that anything they say or do is being watched or listened to by always-on machines. Collection of such massive details on our online presence, which is becoming a greater share of our waking hours, has given these platforms and those who control these platforms tremendous power over our lives without us even realising it. Are we then completely powerless to prevent such shameless invasion of our private lives? Can we do anything at all to mitigate the risks to our privacy? Of course, we can ask our governments to keep a watchful eye on such wayward corporations and cyber perpetrators, but in doing so, we often add to the erosion of privacy rather than help protect it, as more government monitoring means the governments now also have access to private information on citizens. We can ask our lawmakers to enact laws to prevent “passive opt-in permissions” which can help in arresting runaway growth in collection of private data. But in the end, protecting our privacy and personal information is up to us.
Finding the right balance between having a meaningful presence online and not leaking private information to prying eyes is a difficult choice that is creating a lot of debates in many parts of the world. Examining the digital privacy concerns is especially important since the technologies necessary for machine-identification of persons through image recognition, e-passports or smart identity cards, digital forensics and online traffic data are all available already. Large corporations as well as large governments are busy collecting our private data legally and illegally, with opt-in permissions and without, while the general public get increasingly caged digitally that has clear ramifications in their real lives. While in the long run, digital privacy may be a moot point, the cultural evolution that will need to take place for us to live with our body and soul turned inside out may be a long time coming.
In the interregnum, we must be careful not to give away too much information, publicly or privately. I am not suggesting we all start using virtual private network (VPN) tools to remove our online footprints but sometimes that is the only course open to us to save ourselves from digital intrusions of our privacy. If you find VPNs too challenging, maybe you ought to hold your fidgety finger from revealing too much about yourself digitally just as we are told to hold our tongue in fits of rage not to hurt others’ feelings or let out our deep, dark secrets. In the cyber world, as in the real, caution at a personal level is much more effective in protecting our privacy than any governmental regulation or oversight.
Habibullah N Karim is an author, policy activist, investor and serial entrepreneur. He is a founder and former president of BASIS and founder/CEO of Technohaven Company Ltd. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org