Open Secrets

Posted by Nishant Shah at Nov 01, 2013 12:00 AM |
We need to think of privacy in different ways — not only as something that happens between people, but between you and corporations.

Dr. Nishant Shah's article was originally published in the Indian Express on October 27.

If you are a part of any social networking site, then you know that privacy is something to be concerned about. We put out an incredible amount of personal data on our social networks. Pictures with family and friends, intimate details about our ongoing drama with the people around us, medical histories, and our spur-of-the-moment thoughts of what inspires, peeves or aggravates us. In all this, the more savvy use filters and group settings which give them some semblance of control about who has access to this information and what can be done with it.

But it is now a given that in the world of the worldwide web, privacy is more or less a thing of the past. Data transmits. Information flows. What you share with one person immediately gets shared with thousands. Even though you might make your stuff accessible to a handful of people, the social networks work through a "friend-of-a-friend effect", where others in your networks use, like, share and spread your information around so that there is an almost unimaginable audience to the private drama of our lives. Which is why there is a need for a growing conversation about what being private in the world of big data means.

Privacy is about having control over the data and some ownership about who can use it and for what purpose. Interface designs and filters that allow limited access help this process. The legal structures are catching up with regulations that control what individuals, entities, governments and corporations can do with the data we provide. However, most people think of privacy as a private matter. Just look at last month's conversations around Facebook's new privacy policies, which no longer allow you to hide. If you are on Facebook, people can find you using all kinds of parameters — meta data — other than just your name. They might find you through hobbies, pages you like, schools you have studied in, etc. This can be scary because it means that based on particular activities, people can profile and follow you. Especially for people in precarious communities — the young adults, queer people who might not be ready to be out of the closet, women who already face increased misogyny and hostility online. This means they are officially entering a stalkers' paradise.

While those concerns need to be addressed, there is something that seems to be missing from the debate. Almost all of these privacy alarms are about what people can do to people. That we need to protect ourselves from people, when we are in public — digital or otherwise. We are reminded that the world is filled with predators, crackers and scamsters, who can prey on our personal data and create physical, emotional, social and financial havoc. But this is the world we already know. We live in a universe filled with perils and we have learned and coped with the fact that we navigate through dangerous spaces, times and people all the time. The digital is no different than the physical when it comes to the possible perils that we live in, though digital might facilitate some kinds of behaviour and make data-stalking easier.

What is different with the individualised, just-for-you crafted world of the social web is that there are things which are not human, which are interacting with you in unprecedented ways. Make a list of the top five people you interact with on Facebook. And you will be wrong. Because the thing that you interact with the most on Facebook, is Facebook. Look at the amount of chatter it creates — How are you feeling today?; Your friend has updated their status; Somebody liked your comment… the list goes on. In fact, much as we would like to imagine a world that revolves around us, we know that there are a very few people who have the energy and resources to keep track of everything we do. However, no matter how boring your status message or how pedestrian your activity, deep down in a server somewhere, an artificial algorithm is keeping track of everything that you do. Facebook is always listening, and watching, and creating a profile of you. People might forget, skip, miss or move on, but Facebook will listen, and remember long after you have forgotten.

If this is indeed the case, we need to think of privacy in different ways — not only as something that happens between people, but between people and other entities like corporations. The next time there is a change in the policy that makes us more accessible to others, we should pay attention. But what we need to be more concerned about are the private corporations, data miners and information gatherers, who make themselves invisible and collect our personal data as we get into the habit of talking to platforms, gadgets and technologies.