Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The myth of privacy - we are already tracked and tagged everyday, so why bother?

I have been taking a MOOC course called Understanding Media by Understanding Google by Prof. Owen R. Youngman on Coursera for the last 6 weeks and the last assignment was about privacy - a debate on whether our decreasing anonymity online, and the increases in data collection and information sharing that accompany this decrease, either improves or damages 21st-century life. Part of the course work is a peer assessment which we need to complete and I ended up listing how many of the students were ok with the decreasing anonymity online. 

Around 90% of the students ( the sample size is too small at 10 students, hence I cannot say whether this is a trend) whose assignments I graded and a few people I interacted with on Twitter seem to say that they are not very concerned about the lack of privacy due to mega structures like Google and Facebook keeping tabs on them and sharing their information with governments. 

I have to agree with thinker and author of What Would Google Do, Jeff Jarvis who blogs at BuzzMachine when he says that it is impossible for us to hide ourselves from the eyes of who ever wants to study us. We cannot want the benefits of a cell phone network and then grumble that the operator knows where we are at any given time. The more data gets collected the better is the understanding of society and the world around us. 

In times of disaster the data collected can help governments keep tabs on the affected citizens. Disasters like the recent Phailin cyclone and the London riots have shown that responsible use of the information can be useful. Had there been some form of a ruling that disallowed the government from tracking there whereabouts of these potential victims, the toll would have been higher.

Data emerging out of our conversations on Twitter, Facebook and Google can help a greater goal of providing better healthcare, prevent riots and squash rumours in times of strife. One of the comments in the Jeff Jarvis debate on The Economist [1] asks "Does society benefit from people sharing personal information online? To me, the answer is a highly qualified "yes". Yes it allows like minded people to share information and experience that would not otherwise have been exchanged."

Google already knows enough about me, it has had me by the scruff of my neck since they went live with their search engine. Airtel probably has all my text messages and a copy of all my calls, HDFC Bank and Amex knows exactly how much I earn and what I spend on. I have to swipe to access the various buildings and levels at work and every toll booth I cross already takes a grab of my car number plates and my face. There are cameras recording the 24 kms I drive to and fro to work. There are cameras inside the lobby of my building, the lift and the mall. I get calls from 27 agents the moment I am 30 days away from renewing my car insurance. I do not think anyone can function without being tracked. Then why are we so worried about privacy? 

All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret, says Gabriel Garcí¬a Márquez  [2] . My opinion is that what is secret, our deepest darkest stories must be protected and if anyone has these in their lives they must ensure that it is not published on the net or on some social media. However the private part of our lives enhanced by the digital crumbs be leave behind can eventually help us in ways that probably have not yet been discovered.

If in the near future the Internet of Things becomes a significant reality then imagine how enriched our lives can be. And at that point would we be getting fidgety about lack of privacy?

In conclusion can just think of a new jargon I came across in one of the assignments - 'Privacy Currency' - the valuable we give away to get services for free. Think about it.

More things to read on privacy.

But imagine if we did feel free to share our health data. Think of the correlations and possibly causes and cures we could find. Why don't we?
Think of it this way: privacy is what we keep to ourselves; secrecy is what is kept from us. Privacy is a right claimed by citizens. Secrecy is a privilege claimed by government.

( A truncated version of this blog post was submitted as part of the coursework on Google Media on Coursera)

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