I am reading and thinking about the concept of privacy for the past couple of years. But I still had not formed any opinion about it till last week. Does privacy really matter? Or it matters only when you have something to hide? But then I got a call from Vodafone a few days ago and I guess I found my answer.
A Vodafone representative was trying to sell me an offer. “Sir, we have a special offer for you. For just Rs. 49 per month, you can make unlimited calls to two Vodafone numbers you select. Would you like to activate the offer, sir?” I generally do not like add-ons to my basic plan (I am a post-paid user). So I told him that I did not have any Vodafone contacts who I often called to, hence I didn’t really need this offer. But what he said next, truly shocked me. He told me that they had gone through my phone bills and call-history and found out two Vodafone contacts I often make calls to. He even had the audacity to tell me the last five digits of those two numbers. I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to say. So I just said, “No, thanks”, and put down the phone.
The recent PRISM scandal that the Guardian and Washington Post broke , has shown to what extent our privacy is jeopardised. We can no more be sure who has access to our data and how it is being used. We share a lot of personal data on social networking sites; our name, sex, birth date, the school and the college we went to, the places we visit, the movies we watch, the books we read, our social circle, etc. But does this data have any value? And why should anybody be interested in this data? It’s not like this is any secret information. Everybody in our social circle more or less knows all these details already and anybody with little motivation can find it out too (even if we had not shared it online).
But the problem arises when this data is used without our permission and for purposes unknown to us. I knew Vodafone had my call history. I also knew that they could have a look at it whenever they wanted to. But I didn’t expect them to use this data for commercial purposes and that too so brazenly. Your privacy is not violated only when some uncomfortable details about you are made public. If your basic details are used for some political or commercial purposes without your explicit permission, that is also a violation of your privacy. But that is what corporations and governments are currently doing and it should worry us.
Though the commercial use of data (without explicit permission) to sell advertisements and services is unethical, some people may be OK with it. But we cannot be OK with Governments surveilling us and collecting data from corporations and otherwise to keep a tab on us. The common argument that is made against privacy is that if you have nothing to hide, why should you worry about it? The other argument is, if you want security, you should not make a much fuss about privacy. Even Barack Obama said as much. But this article nicely shows the fallacy of both the arguments.
The problem with digital data is that it is easily available. It is easy to scour, and easy to interlink. Our each click on the net leaves a data trail behind. Our every tweet, status update, check-in and online shopping bag add one more data point to our web history. Corporations exploit this data to further their commercial interests, sometimes surreptitiously and sometimes brazenly. Governments use the same to pry on their citizens.
Privacy is not just something we enjoy. It is something that is necessary for us to: develop who we are; form an identity that is not dictated by the social conditions that directly or indirectly influence our thinking, decisions, and behaviors; and decide what type of society we want to live in.
It’s time we cared.
P.S.: For those who want to dig deeper, here is an awesome 24 page research paper on the subject.