The Value of Privacy?


The other day I was reading about the uproar the class action law suit against Facebook was creating. Commentators and activists alike were deriding the fact that Facebook had unscrupulously ‘eavesdropped’ on private messages to determine what kind of advertisements and products could be pushed onto our personal Facebook home pages. There has been a long held suspicion and whisper campaign that internet giant Google is also not above board on such personal data mining and use without permission. The fear of personal data theft and use and the consequences thereof seems to be morphing into Privacy versus Technology crusade for many.

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As I muse over all this, I wonder what really is this outrage over privacy all about? Is it not that we voluntarily share information about ourselves a thousand times more than what we did a mere decade back? Is it not that we share such information to make our own lives easier?

I can recall a prescient prediction of more than a decade ago which said that ‘our planet will acquire an electronic skin’. We seem to have reached some kind of a tipping point where communication between person to person, person to inanimate object and even between inanimate objects is becoming increasingly commonplace using smart devices. Such communications and information flows get supported as disparate technologies converge and in between gatekeepers vanish. Technology giant CISCO dubs this as “internet of everything”.

So what really is occurring? On one end of the spectrum is the promise of Web 2.0, cloud computing and allied architecture allowing off-machine data storage and ‘on demand’ application access. Somewhere in the middle are the rapid strides of broadband, wireless internet and cutting edge data analytics. The other end of the spectrum remains all about mobile devices and smart phones. Each of them holding computing power more than what was available for the Apollo missions to the moon!

As the planet’s ‘electronic skin’ becomes more pervasive in this manner, it supports us to make things simple. As it begins to ‘understand’ our needs, preferences and propensity for repetitive tasks. Be it about the kind of television channel or social media we watch. Or the kind of cuisine and wine we prefer on weekends. Or monitor chronic ailments to cut our health costs. Or track and complete payments of our bills. Or our office / home address and what route to take to reach there most optimally. Or our offices and homes to predict and act on our energy, water and other service needs. Or to………….. The possibilities are endless and ever increasing.

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How could this ‘electronic skin’ support us in all the above ways if it was not privy to our private information and preferences? How could we hanker for more of our needs to be anticipated by the environment if we did not allow more complete profiles of ourselves to be maintained within the same environment?

I muse about this apparent contradiction.

Could it be that as we seek increased support and comforts from technology in terms of automating our life’s mundane tasks, we choose to ignore the fact that this requires constant exchange of our privacy data between networks and devices? Could it be that what we assumed as our ‘privacy perimeter’ in the past may no longer be relevant in an increasingly wired world? As Steve Rambam, the internet privacy specialist says, “Privacy is dead- get over it”. So how do we ‘get over it’ and re-visualise our privacy parameter?

I sense the concern that most of us carry about privacy. Through the annals of history, we have come to see privacy as an undeniable human right, inseparable from the concept of liberty. When we perceive an assault on our privacy, we apprehend a loss of freedom through being judged, criticized and corrected. Further, with an ‘electronic skin’ all around, we now fear that electronic footprints we leave behind might be used to implicate or defraud us. Is the core of our privacy concern about being compromised by something we have hidden or need to hide? Or is it about losing our individuality as all we say or do gets recorded in that all around ‘electronic skin’?

So how could we reassess the value of privacy in our lives today? I believe that first we need to shift ourselves away from the perspective that it is all about liberty versus control. This need not be if we retain conviction about what we say and do and not get dissuaded by the thought of getting judged or criticized. Secondly, we need to become comfortable with our personal lives being increasingly visible to others. As we feel less need to ‘hide’ aspects of ourselves. As we embrace values of integrity and authenticity into our lives. As we align more and more with the path yielding the greatest good for our organisations, communities and society at large.

In learning…………… Shakti Ghosal

Acknowledgement: ‘The Value of Privacy’- A blog post by Bruce Schneier, May 2006

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