Privacy is a mere mirage in this ultra-connected world.

There are many critics who opine that the biometric enabled Aadhaar empowers the government to conduct mass surveillance on its citizens, and therefore, has the potential to breach the privacy of even the law-abiding people.  Whether Aadhaar is a breach of privacy or not will depend on how the government will choose to utilize the data. However, the entire debate on Aadhaar and its likely misuse induces us to think whether we really have any kind of privacy left in this digital age? The answer seems to be a big no.

In this age of connected world, where the ever-increasing number of people are getting hooked up to the internet and where the cutting edge technologies such as IoT and big data are ready to take the world by storm, the privacy of an individual can be ensured only as long as he does not embark on the digital bandwagon and leads a highly reclusive life. But the modern digital technologies are such enticing things that people can’t resist the temptation to use internet and acquire modern gadgets such as smart phones and wearable devices. The moment people start using these connected devices, they start accumulating a digital footprint and thereby acquire a digital persona. They open their Google accounts and social media accounts such as Facebook and twitter and start putting a lot of data willingly in the public domain. That is when exactly the tracking starts. Search engines such as Google and Bing know a lot about their users though they don’t brag about it just to avoid a furor from privacy advocates.

They have the browsing history of their users stored on their servers and from that information they can easily get to know about their tastes, preferences and habits and even the products they purchase and the services they use. Google knows which product you are searching for, which ad you clicked and thereafter on which online store you placed an order. They even get to know which brick-and-mortar store you visited to buy a product if the location history in your smart phone is enabled. Though there are many privacy settings that you can make on your browser, they are not as private as you think.

Now the question arises as to why the search engines track our browsing history and why the email service providers scan our mail. It all happens in the name of improving our user experience by personalizing our search results. But in reality they use all the data and the insights they derive from it to strengthen their ad networks, which are a golden goose for them.  Well, as the saying goes, ‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’. The supposedly free search engines and the email services are not actually free and we are paying for them by letting a lot of our personal data fall into their hands. Netizens all over the world are concerned about the shrinking of their personal space and are tilting towards the technologies and services that don’t indulge in data surveillance. Perhaps that is why search engines like DuckDuckGo and browsers like Tor, which enable people to stay anonymous in the digital space, are increasingly getting popular.

Social networking sites know the ideas you hold and the ideologies you subscribe to. People who pursue their ideologies with passion often wear their heart on their sleeves and rant a lot on the social media. They remain under the impression that they are just exercising their freedom of expression, and therefore, are oblivious to the fact that they might be getting snooped on. The seemingly harmless activism of someone could be perceived by the law enforcement agencies as an early sign of a potentially dangerous act of sabotage.  Governments all over the world use mass surveillance technologies to snoop on their citizens on the pretext of maintaining law and order and protecting the unity and sovereignty of their countries. The Edward Snowden affair already brought out how the US intelligence agencies carried out extensive internet and phone surveillance on their citizens and on its allies. Even the Indian government, according to reports, has set up a mechanism called Centralized Monitoring System (CMS) to monitor communications on mobile phones, landlines and the internet with the stated intention of strengthening the security environment in the country.

Well, what could be the methods to work anonymously if you are an activist and want to exercise your democratic right to dissent without attracting the attention of law enforcement agencies? Experts advice securing your computers through various methods. The only way to keep yourself absolutely secure in this information age is to work on a standalone or air gapped computer and use flash drives to transfer files from one system to another. But hackers and security agencies found sophisticated methods, especially malwares, to jump the air gap and infect the so-called secure computers.

If you feel that you can escape being tracked by suitably managing your digital footprint, you must know that this is only the beginning. The emerging world of IoT will make it much more challenging or almost impossible to protect one’s privacy. Once IoT is fully deployed each and every conceivable object and appliance humans use will transform themselves into WiFi capable and sensor enabled smart objects. These smart objects have the capability to communicate with each other and even with their users, and in the process generate vast amounts of data about their users such as what they eat, how long do they rest, their interactions, their movements, their health status and what not. The enormity of data they generate and the magnitude of efforts that are needed to capture and analyze the data raise many doubts as to whether it is humanly possible to execute the tasks without giving scope for any data breaches. IoT technologists take pains to assure us that they are putting foolproof measures to ensure data safety and privacy protection. Irrespective of the kind of measures they put in place we will find it progressively more difficult to lead a life of anonymity and we become increasingly vulnerable to privacy breaches and all kinds of attacks. Well, what is the way out?

People who go online have to understand the fact that this connected and information-rich century comes with certain risks. It appears that we can no longer aspire a risk-free environment where we can lead a life of complete anonymity. We need to be careful about what personal information we put on the public domain and who can see it. As far as the confidential information such as financial details, credit card numbers, business correspondence and health records are concerned, there should be ample safeguards to preempt the potential intruders when we hook into the networks.

People should also realize the fact that this conflict infested world is turning increasingly precarious and they should get ready to sacrifice some of their privacy to lead secure lives. However, at the same time, there is no guarantee that the government will use data surveillance only to maintain law and order and to safeguard the unity and sovereignty of the country. Governments try to persuade people by saying that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. However, the people should be mindful of the fact that the data surveillance could also be employed to exercise control over the behavior of individuals and societies and even to resort to pernicious social engineering, which could prove to be inimical to the future of democracy. It is this eventuality the people and the civil society should be conscious about and stay ever ready to thwart any attempt in that direction. The need of the hour is to tread cautiously without cultivating the feelings of paranoia to equip ourselves to face the impending ultra-connected world.

This article found place in the local English language newspaper, Telangana Today in Blogs section. The link is given here-under.

Is privacy a mirage in this connected world?

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About Dr. Ramachandra Reddy

I'm a news junkie and a compulsive blogger. I learn as if I were to live forever. Through my writings I want to give voice to the voiceless and empower the disempowered.
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  • Durga Prasad Dash

    Somewhere someone is always watching you