Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Future of Privacy - Threats to and Erosion of Privacy in the 21st Century (Part 2)

'People have no privacy - get over it'...Scott McNealy,1999; SUN founder and CEO 
'Living a public life is the new default'
'Privacy will become a 'luxury' - only rich will have it.
'In 2025, everything will be transparent; people will not have the illusion of privacy'

Part 1  (Part 1:  http://ektalks.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/future-of-privacy-what-is-privacy-and.html ) discussed the importance of privacy for our overall welfare/fulfilment.  It was argued that loss of privacy can give others unfair advantage over us.  Privacy is a relatively modern concept and its meaning changes across different cultures.  It might be fair to say that privacy is a social construct. In ancient times, people had very little privacy; before central heating, members of a family would likely be sharing one or two rooms.  
Religions and also liberal political notions consider privacy as an 'inviolable'  right. The notion of privacy is a continuously evolving one and the way our society is currently organised, it seems desirable to hold on to our privacy in the way Oxford Dictionary (OD) defines it - Privacy is freedom from intrusion or public attention; avoidance of publicity. According to Freud, one needs to escape from the pressures of civilization; it helps if your right to be left alone is respected.
I must emphasize here, that this notion of privacy is being eroded rapidly and will be obsolete in the next 15 to 20 years.

With the advances in digital technologies and the way most people will live their lives in the 21st century, one should distinguish between the two forms of privacy;  
Physical (realspace) and Digital (cyberspace) privacy.  
  
If privacy is something worthy of protection - then first we need to understand - what are the threats, where are they coming from? We do not consider everything about us as private - we talk to family and friends, health, legal, financial professionals about important confidential aspects of our lives and we do that because we implicitly trust them to keep the information confidential. Without this trust, life will be unbearable. In the pre-internet age, before 1995, we could share, with reasonable confidence, private information with people we trusted - is this still so?

Threats to privacy could come from various sources:
1. Self - We can lose privacy by our actions
2. Business - Information about us is useful for them 
3. State - The most serious violators of privacy (see Part 3) 
4. Criminals - Cyber crime is expected to increase in future
5. New Technologies - ??  (IoT, see Part 4)

Let us look at what people's anxiety is about privacy


Only 0.05% of people have lot of trust on social networking websites to keep data about them secure.  This rises to 1.5% for online retailers, 2% for governments and 3% for retail stores loyalty cards etc.  Not a big vote of confidence!

Threats from Self:  A large number of surveys have been done; consistently 70 to 90% people say that they are worried about their privacy but they feel they have no control on how information about them is shared. While people appear to want more privacy, they voluntarily give away their privacy knowing full well the consequences.  On social media, one will post information about their holidays - inviting burglars.  Some insurance companies will not cover you for break-ins if you have posted your holiday plans on the internet.  Intimate details about what you do and think are shared with 'friends'. The growing trend of instant response to events gives away a lot of psychological information about you.  People seem to want to be famous - they will object about loss of privacy but they never leave the public platform and continue to advertise their intimate details.  What we are observing is the gradual fading away of the expectation of privacy as a fundamental right in the 21st century.  The choice appears to be that either you sacrifice your privacy or lose out on the comfort and convenience that the digital age provides you. The new generation, born after year 2000 will only know the new paradigm and will not rue the loss of privacy the same way as the older generation might.  
We shall look at the way businesses, governments and criminals collect and use information about people in Part 3. 

Let us look briefly, the methods by which your personal information may be manipulated.  Most information about us is readily converted into digital form on some database; from this stage our privacy faces the most serious threats.  Some of the ways our personal information may be affected are discussed in the followng:
1.  Data Merging:  We voluntarily give organisations personal information about ourselves to complete a transaction.  For example, we give information about our income and credit history to a bank to secure a loan, or give information about our medical history to an insurance company to take out life insurance.  Both organisations have a legitimate need for the information to help them make a decision.  We have given the bank and the insurance company the required information for a reason and no breach of privacy happens up to this point but we give personal information with the understanding that it will not be used for any other purpose by transferring  to or sharing with other organisation.
If the bank and insurance company share the information on their databases about us without our consent/authorisation/ knowledge then a breach of privacy occurs and we lose control on our information.  When one company merges or is bought over by another company, then their databases are merged and we have no control on how our data is handled.
Another example is the national identity card system where it is claimed that by having all our personal information on one card will make life much simpler.  This requires merging a large amount of your personal data in one place and the department, that you are dealing with, will also have personal information which they do not require.
2. Data Matching:  This happens when records on a database are used to match similar records on another database.   For example, faces of football fans entering the stadium are digitised in a facial recognition system and can be matched in real time with a centralised database to suspected terrorists and criminals. Or the tax office might use records held by department of social security to ascertain if  you were illegally claiming benefits.  As we shall see later (Part 3), the probability of misinterpretation of information from an independent database can be quite high and completely false decisions can be made without very strict codes of operation - sadly, many incidences are proof that this is not so.
3. Data Mining:   Large amount of information is being collected about the population.  This is a gold mine for companies and institutions in their attempts to understand broad commercial and social trends.  A knowledge of such trends can be exploited in making money for the companies by directly marketing goods and services to individuals.  Such information can be effectively used to influence political and social activities of a group of people.
Cookies on the internet & smartphones and loyalty cards issued by retailers are some of the methods for creating a lot of information about your shopping habits, your likes and dislikes, the group of people you are in most contact with etc. This information can be used to create a good personality profile for a large section of the population.  Additionally, information about you collected by one source may be accessed (either by agreement or by making a payment for it) by another institution.  All this can happen without your consent - although is many cases, you do provide the initial information willingly but then what choice one has?  If you do not accept cookies, many internet sites will not let you proceed to the next stage etc. - so you are not in control of what information about you can be collected and shared among institutions.

In Part 3, we shall look at the role of the State in collecting information about us, how they use it and what implications this might have for the future of our privacy.    

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