Is privacy a mirage in this connected world?

By Ramachandra Reddy   |   Published: 4th May 2017   5:49 pm Updated: 4th May 2017   5:52 pm
Aadhaar card
Representational Image

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 will depend on how the government will choose to utilise 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 to the internet and where 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 digital technologies are so enticing that people can’t resist the temptation to use them. The moment people start using these connected devices, they start accumulating a digital footprint and thereby acquire a digital persona. They open their Google 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.

Tracking Netizens
Search engines such as Google and Bing know a lot about their users though they don’t brag about. They have the browsing history of their users stored on their servers and from that information get to know about their tastes, preferences and habits and even the products they purchase and the services they use. Google knows which products the netizens search for, which ads they click and thereafter on which online store they place orders. They even get to know the brick-and-mortar store a netizen visited to buy a product if the location history in his smartphone is enabled.

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 personalising our search results and filtering out spam. But in reality, they use all the data and the insights they derive from it to strengthen their ad networks. 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 shrinking of their personal space and are tilting towards technologies and services that don’t indulge in data surveillance. Perhaps that is why search engines like DuckDuckGo and browsers like Tor, which empower people to stay anonymous in the digital space, are increasingly getting popular.

Monitoring Communications
Social networking sites know the ideas one holds and the ideologies one subscribes to. People who pursue their ideologies with passion often wear their heart on their sleeves and rant a lot on 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 the world over 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, through its intelligence agencies, carried out extensive internet and phone surveillance on its citizens and its allies. Even the Indian government, according to reports, has set up a mechanism called Centralised 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 one is an activist and wants to exercise his democratic right to dissent without attracting the attention of law enforcement agencies? Experts advise securing our computers through various methods. The only way to keep oneself 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 have found sophisticated methods, especially malwares, to jump the air gap and infect the so-called secure computers.

If one feels that he can escape being tracked by suitably managing his digital footprint, he must know that this connected world is moving towards becoming an ultra-connected world, where managing digital footprint may become almost impossible.

Way Out
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 itself into WiFi capable and sensor-enabled smart object. 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, movements and health status. The enormity of data they generate and the magnitude of efforts that are needed to capture and analyse the data raise 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 can become increasingly vulnerable to privacy breaches. 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 in the public domain and who can see it. As far as 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 on to the networks. People should also realise 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 meet the stated objectives. Governments try to persuade people by saying that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. However, people should be mindful of the fact that the data surveillance could also be employed to exercise control over the behaviour of individuals and societies by resorting 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 of 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.

File Photo: Ramachandra Reddy. The Author is a former Associate Professor