The Cheat Sheet

Privacy: A very 20th century idea. Really?

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 09, 2018 Published on August 30, 2017


Let me guess; is this about the Supreme Court ruling?

Not exactly. Reams have been written on the SC’s historic ruling that privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed under the Constitution. But a more interesting issue is the way privacy is defined today, much like the proverbial blind men who described the elephant. Companies have their own versions of privacy; activists, policymakers, data experts, individuals have their own versions of the fundamental right.

Give me an example.

It was once unimaginable for people to merrily post their photos and private information on platforms. There were all kinds of scares around ‘morphing’ photos and such misuse. Enter Facebook in 2004, and the game has changed. Granted, Google’s Orkut came earlier, but it was Facebook’s cool algorithms, blending behavioural sciences with technology, that induced people to shed shame and voluntarily reveal personal information that was once considered a no-no.

Yes. Worries over ‘online privacy’ subsided.

Behavioural scientist Alessandro Acquisti of Carnegie Mellon University wrote an interesting article in the IEE Security & Privacy magazine in 2009. ‘Nudging Privacy: The Behavioral Economics of Personal Information’ said: In 2007, a Facebook group came under media attention: 30 Reasons Girls Should Call It a Night counted “nearly 150,000 members and a collection of nearly 5,000 photos of young women passed out on the pavement, collapsed in shrubbery, peeing in bushes, and vomiting in toilets (or on themselves).” Most of the subjects had uploaded the photos themselves. This shows how things have changed in a few years. Today, some 2 billion people are on Facebook, disseminating personal data that can be mined by third parties.

But there are checks, right?

Yes. And there should be. The point is how the idea has changed over time, thanks to technology. But with it came possibilities (read: threats) of data misuse and breach. Yes, the world has shrunk for good to become a ‘Global Village’ of information (even if not in the way Canadian thinker Marshall McLuhan imagined it), but in this process it placed curbs on individual liberty, and companies and governments have smelled an opportunity here.

Like what?

While companies saw an opportunity to know their customers and make them buy more, governments realised these disclosures help them know their citizens better. That was just the start; soon everyone got greedy. Companies started gleaning more personal data from user profiles, and governments demanded more information from citizens by introducing regulations that punched holes in individual privacy, triggering a global debate on surveillance. Activists wonder if such intrusions are signs of the Big Brother state George Orwell had predicted.

Is the Aadhaar a case in point?

Yes. While the Government says the biometrics-aided personal identification number can help check corruption and tax evasion, and ensure better delivery of welfare schemes, rights activists say it is a breach of personal liberty, and making it mandatory for availing government services can imperil privacy and choice. The latest Supreme Court verdict on privacy can also mean the Government cannot impose Aadhaar-like systems on the public.

A complex issue, I reckon.

It is, yes. The most important aspect of the privacy issue is that it places the individual at the centre of it all. The state or any other party comes only next. So, when companies say privacy is a very 20th Century idea (as an IT giant claimed in a study a few years ago) and ‘global’ citizens cannot demand ‘information liberties’ beyond a level, they must know that a world without the ‘right to choose’ will be a disaster. The very idea of a free market rests on the consumer’s right (and ability) to make informed choices about products and services.

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Published on August 30, 2017
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