R SwaminathanJan 11, 2017 11:49:13 IST
To paraphrase a Trumpism about Streepism at my own peril, privacy is over-rated. Let’s take the surprisingly muted revelations by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about Facebook, Instagram and Twitter selling private user data to Geofeedia, a company that specialises in social media monitoring products. That’s information about you and me, or people like you and me. That both companies no longer do it is a moot point. That they did, and felt that they could, is the first real issue. That it’s the same ACLU which hasn’t gone to town when it precisely does the same when sundry government agencies get nosy is the second real issue. And, it’s the venerable ACLU that we are talking about here, an organisation with such a deep rooted legacy of gut wrenching battles for civil liberties and individual rights that their credibility just cannot be questioned even for a moment.
Let’s get real and, may I politely suggest, stop whining and creating a froth. The moment you log into your device, and it doesn’t matter whether you are in offline or online mode, there is a cookie or its equivalent lurking somewhere in its entrails monitoring your every keystroke and swipe. The moment you get connected to the bandwidth highway – or what passes for it in India at 512 kbps – your data is uploaded to many servers. Once uploaded it passes and parses through several analytics tools, software systems, algorithms and people, yes humans, in order for the companies to understand consumer behavior: everything from what you are buying, browsing, burying to burrowing, bawling and bump fisting. Google does it. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram too. And every digital company worth its bits and bytes. Some do it silently and in a behind the scenes manner, others do it blatantly and openly. Uber now calls itself a Big Data company.
So let me reiterate once more.
There is no privacy. In fact every key stroke of mine that typed “There is no privacy” has been monitored by the time I finished the sentence. So, privacy is over-rated.
Again, let’s get real. If companies do it with such finesse and sophistication, all in the name of serving the consumer the best digital experience, there is no reason in the worldly scheme of things to hold the governments back from doing the same with the ostensible purpose of delivering better services and governance to its citizens. In both cases, it’s bit like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There is a thin dividing line between serving and self-serving. Companies and government can be both, as we all well know. The issue that when the government does it, somehow the hackles of various rights activists seem to be raised just a wee bit higher.
Ok, I was trying to be subtle, and I failed. They are raised like there is no tomorrow. It’s so because there is one reality that the activists just refuse to acknowledge. Monitoring, or electronic snooping depending on which side of the fence you find yourself in, is here to stay. Period. Some countries like the US, France, Germany and Russia have turned it into a Beethoven’s symphony, a fine art. Others like India, China and Brazil are following suit. Yet again, let me reiterate. There is no privacy. And this time a government agency would have monitored every single keystroke of mine that typed the sentence. So, privacy is over-rated. In fact, let me go overboard. Privacy is dead.
If privacy was the proverbial horse, and it has long bolted out of the stable, as it has, then is the battle a lost cause? This is where the activists, especially Indian activists, need to wake up and smell the coffee or whatever else they drink or inhale. It’s one thing to campaign, spike the adrenaline about rights and liberties and bring in larger democratic values. They are useful. But it’s like flogging a half-dead horse, pun unintended. Seen in one way, individual rights, collective liberties and the larger democratic framework are under threat from everything: from Abu Bakr Baghdadi, Climate Change to Donald Trump and shadowy Venture Capitalists.
Privacy of private and personal data is a specific issue that requires integrated thought processes comprising policy, legal and social and cultural engineering dimensions. Such an integrated process is required, more so, when a digital ecosystem is becoming ubiquitous and all pervasive. It requires activists to research, dive deep into issues, understand codes and algorithms and ways in which they intersect and interact with each other.
In short, it requires Indian activists to do the hard miles, work their way through complicated codes and issues and evolve policy solutions: something that they aren’t used to today. As a country, we need to move beyond a blanket opposition to monitoring, oversight and data parsing. It’s happening. It will happen. It will continue to happen. A good question to begin with is how do we regulate it rationally?
I will say it again. Privacy is over-rated. Privacy is dead.
Swaminathan is Consulting Editor, Firstpost. His book Notes of a Digital Gypsy is slated for release in March this year. He can contacted at email@example.com
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