29 December 2009
Status quo and the future of privacy
Most of us have no idea how much others can find about us, our personal lives, hobbies, interest or profession. The week is an introspective view of certain technologies that have made it possible to find our electronic foot prints in the modern times. Protecting one’s anonymity is a game that one can never win completely once and for all.
Even to those skeptics who claim that they have taken all possible measures to protect their privacy by not indulging in social networking online and limiting their communications to close circle of family and friends, it might be a rude shock to know how simple it is easy to track them electronically.
Consider the common mobile phone, which is an electronic device just meant to make and receive calls. Let us not even introduce the mini-computer like abilities that modern phones are capable of at this point. It is almost impossible to purchase a new mobile connection without revealing other personal identity information connected to their real life.
Once these details are provided to the mobile-service provider, it is possible to track every conversation and all exchange of calls with contacts. Several national and political scandals have come to limelight just because of this traceability of telephone calls.
Those who have the habit of swiping cards at hotels and shopping malls, are little aware that their shopping habits and preferred brands and services are traceable. Many retailers retain this information in a database and comb this often to prepare your profile and later target promotions and specific marketing communications customised for you.
Even the fast food center near your house knows your exact location and your favourite item. Some companies have gone to the extent of gathering geo-positioning data from your mobile phone calls and precisely tell us where you are ordering from. Data brokers with weak systems have been targeted by hackers and in the end result it is the customer’s who pay the price for privacy violations.
Consider choosing a personal visit to a shopping mall or a restaurant to avoid being tracked electronically. The myriads of globes handing on the roof could be live cameras recording your moves, and storing them is large data drives. At any point these videos could be played back, zooming close at your face enough to recognise that it is the real you.
If masking our telephone calls is difficult then covering up your online activity is almost impossible. All Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are required to maintain records about their users and dish them out completely when requirement by law-enforcement agencies.
In social media sites like the facebook and twitter, it’s certainly nice to share information and photographs and even mobile contacts. But all these platforms are public platforms and the chances that they could be technically compromised makes your data there sensitive.
Those tech geeks who pride themselves in the use of anonymiser software to erase their online trails have little to celebrate. Technically anonymisers must be tracking and archiving your website visits. For law enforcement purposes they may be forced to reveal these data. It could also be possible that decoy anonymisers are planted by government agencies to trap people who use these and frame cases with valid proof. It’s only possible that your own ISP may not have to online voyages, but this is electronically archived in some server out there.
Profiling through data
As citizens, immigrants or even as visitors, the extent of surveillance we undergo is quite sizeable. The data so far collected about is resides as digital data somewhere. It is up to technologies such as search engines, semantic webs, geo-positioning systems and data-mining software to make meaningful relations between these disparate data about you and me from various sources and eventually create a complete profile about us that we are even conscious of.
Imagine how much Google knows about you, from the way you search, the emails you exchange, the documents you place in their clouds, the blogs you maintain with blogger, your customised news profile, the videos you watch on youtube and the places you have traversed on Google maps. Haven’t we told Google enough about us, that scares us about their intrusion into our privacy circles if ever required?
Change is inevitable
Let us consider adoption of technology as a generation of change and find ways to adapt our lives with these interventions. Privacy is now more of a relative matter where the naïve and innocent are victimised without remedy for protection. We are aware of people whose email accounts have been hacked in causing embarrassment and a permanent haunt for all the resulting exposure of mails and contacts.
It a natural phenomena that the more we network and communicate, either with or without technology, we tend to share our personal details of varying degree. Rethinking privacy, it is now for us draw a new line, one beyond which, privacy violation affects us personally, emotionally or economically.
In a digital lifestyle, the electronic trail we leave behind certainly a prime factor to be considered in this direction. Perhaps in the era where identification and authorisation happen through biometric more naturally and automatically (for example holding a door handle can authenticate and authorise you for entry) then there will be no need to panic about privacy.
This article is meant to be more of thought provoking than to chastise privacy protection measures through products or policies, emphasising on our readiness to taken actions. Your view points are welcome through comments.