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They Know You Are Reading This!

Abhinav Arora
20 Jan 2022 4:44 AM GMT
They Know You Are Reading This!
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For ordinary people, privacy seems like an abstract idea and a right only for the rich & powerful. However, we all engage in countless daily activities, which we wouldn't share with everyone. Even our mundane activities like the way we eat, what we wear, how we talk or even sneeze are always different in the comfort of our homes than in public places. When we anticipate scrutiny...

For ordinary people, privacy seems like an abstract idea and a right only for the rich & powerful. However, we all engage in countless daily activities, which we wouldn't share with everyone. Even our mundane activities like the way we eat, what we wear, how we talk or even sneeze are always different in the comfort of our homes than in public places. When we anticipate scrutiny by random people or perhaps even from select family members, it forces us to change our usual behavior. This thought grazes the importance of personal space and how it provides the luxury to behave in a manner that makes us most comfortable.

Before exploring the 'whys' of privacy, it is necessary to touch upon the most common argument against it: If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. This infamous anti-privacy argument was coined by Joseph Goebbels, (Chief of propaganda, Nazi Party), who helped to build fascist ideology in then Germany. Intrusion into personal and political space was necessary for Hitler, the dictator to keep the people oppressed.

Privacy Through Personal Lens

We interact with our spouses, colleagues, family every day, yet we often distance a part of ourselves from each one of them. Usually, we wouldn't tell our employer that we are looking for a new job or will avoid giving a sick family member bad news or won't let our partner know that we didn't like the gift or the new attire. We put up these barriers either to protect ourselves, others or just because we feel it's too 'private'. By owning our own information, we exercise domain over our privacy.

Whenever we feel vulnerable in our personal life or professional, we share only among our loved ones. It's because we feel hostile when people shower us with their uncalled wisdom, patronage or acting like they know better or would have done differently. We might find good advice, but we all have seen those Twitter storms & YouTube comments where people love to slander. People are conditioned to judge badly, hastily, out of context, without listening to the whole story.

The fear of criticism forces us to modify our actions to meet the expectations of society (societal orthodoxy). If one is planning to abort or adopt, we would keep the conversations private. Lack of privacy could intimidate us into changing our decision just to 'fit in' the social narrative. The moment one plans to do something unorthodox and when such thought crosses the mind, it will be shut by the plethora of negative comments and the fear of embarrassment in case of failure. Privacy allows us to explore new ideas, which others might not (immediately) recognize. It is this intrusion forces us into societal orthodoxy, creating a mental prison and distancing us from the things we love.

Every relation has some uniqueness within - it might be a distinct way of speaking to our partner, or a funny tone while interacting with our sibling. These ingredients make these relationships 'special'. Normally, there is no access to this information but disturbing these threads of relationship and intrusion spoils the 'so special' aspect in such relations. This makes way for the question 'What's so special about you?".

We postpone arguments in a public place not because they are illegal or immoral but to avoid creating an awkward situation. No one would want their parents or loved ones to be embarrassed, we restrain ourselves from expressing on social media. Hence, privacy isn't about hiding a crime but hiding this personal space too.

Our family better understands us as they know our history, likes & dislikes and how we respond to situations. These aspects together define who we are. But technology can understand them too and remember them far more effectively. With no restrictions, we allow anyone from our friend circle, neighbor to a con man to know more about our spouse or our child than we know. What ice cream our children like, which route our child or spouse travels through, Access to our family's live location, Information about our assets etc. Do we want to live in a world where people know - what our spouse dislikes about us or the last argument we had with our child? How safe is it for everyone to know about the differences within our family? Wouldn't this make us, our relationships and, more importantly, family - vulnerable and exposed for anyone to abuse and exploit?

Lack Of Privacy; Turning Companies Into Puppeteers

The saying "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product" applies especially to social media platforms. We often attempt to reduce our endless scrolling of social media feeds but fail. Every action we take on the internet is watched, analysed and stored forever. It enables the companies to manipulate our behavior and keep us engaged. Actions like our Google searches; the emails we send & receive, or the ones left in drafts; our tweets and posts; videos we watch; the people we interact with; and even which photo we zoomed in.

Scarier is that the companies even analyse how we draft a message, tweet, or email; how many times we press that backspace, reword a sentence, or change the tone of the message. It allows companies access to our thought process, enabling them to build our digital identity. This secret identity exposes us to skillful manipulations which are hard to detect. Companies are known to run social experiments where they influence people by introducing them to more negative posts than they would otherwise be.

A person is far more susceptible to manipulations by exploiting insecurities. A person conscious about their appearance will more likely surrender to suggestions of stylish, expensive clothes. Algorithms decide what posts we see and in which order. In silos, they appear harmless, but the danger comes with the way these posts together build a narrative. A person uncomfortable with their body can be deviously persuaded into buying a yearly gym membership. It can be done by showing a curated list of "Be Healthy" posts and a bunch of ads selling that gym membership. All this gives them tremendous power to command our behavior.

Without privacy, a personal message to our spouse, hinting that we are sad, can be analysed by the app within seconds. This information can then be misused by our food aggregators nudging us via mobile notification to order our favorite dessert, and we likely will. Companies can pull us into behaviors they desire by exploiting us during our unfortunate times via timely and meaningful posts specifically targeted to us. Hence, protecting privacy is not about hiding information, but it's about the ability to be free from undetected, unwarranted influence.

Imagine if anytime we delay on our loan installment, the lender texts all our contacts to shame us into paying. Companies have done this in the past, and it will be a norm in a world without privacy. Lack of privacy leads to this arbitrary behavior. For instance, companies have notoriously bumped up hotel and flight booking costs for users under the pretext of "dynamic pricing" only because they have an expensive device.

Offline companies aren't that behind and often wander into private spaces. In one creepy instance, a retail store analysed a girl's purchases and found out about her pregnancy before her parents & family. Imagine the emotional turmoil for the family, where a random person knows such intimate details about the girl but not her family.

The shameless breach of privacy, if not stopped, will command all areas of our life. How would you feel if the next time you eat that juicy cheeseburger or drink that delicious scotch, your insurance company increases the premium? Or if you often go on treks, prefer lift over stairs, or take sugar. If companies are allowed to evaluate every aspect of our lives, we are consenting to a world where a person sitting at their desks, writes algorithms that will decide the maximum number of sugar crystals we are allowed to order with our coffee.

Be Vigilant

Privacy, like oxygen, is paramount to human existence, and like oxygen, we don't realise its importance in our daily lives. However, to have "free will" and not let others command our careers, salaries, friends, spouse or how many kids to have, we need to be cognizant of our Right to Privacy.

As a single solution can't protect us from the countless methods of privacy intrusions, it requires a separate discussion. However, a couple of easy actions an individual can take:

  • START asking why that company or the store needs that information.
  • DON'T give the information which doesn't make sense.
  • STOP giving microphone, gallery, location permissions to everyone.
  • NEVER give SMS or email permission to anyone.
  • ENGAGE in dialogues on privacy with friends, family & social media. Spread the word.

For the next couple of days, assume that all your friends & family members are - watching all your actions & listening to all your conversations. And then examine - if those actions behind the closed bedroom doors or the conversations you have with your loved ones change?

Views are personal - Abhinav Arora is a Software expert and a law student at Law Faculty.

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