The topic of user privacy is a delicate one to say the least. It's relatively easy to persuade businesses to onboard with the idea of privacy, as it can be easily related to a monetary value. For individuals however it's a different story. The typical response of "If I have nothing to hide then why do I care?" is the socially acceptable narrative, regurgitated by those too naive to scratch the surface of the social implications. A lack of knowledge should not be seen as a weakness, on the contrary, it's an opportunity to grow and become an informed and active citizen.
This article is for those intrigued by the subject of privacy, a starting point so to speak, of a topic, having the capacity to affect every part of our lives. That being said, let's dive in and start in a place most can relate to: the ever-present smartphone!
We intentionally carry around a device capable of tracking our every movement, recording what we say, tracking our purchases, our affiliations, our waking and sleeping patterns, likes, dislikes, friends, contacts, appointments, finances, even our private desires. With apps and accessories, things get compounded even further. Every detail of our waking life is trusted to this little device, no one can deny the smartphone has become an intricate part of modern-day living. To put it bluntly, the smartphone is a data collection and tracking tool we not only desire but willingly submit to.
If we're able to accept this simple fact, then the next question should be slightly easier to explore. Who has access to our data?
All this information has to go somewhere, right? If you're an Android user a large portion of it goes to Google. Don't believe me? Try searching for "How to download your Google data". You may be surprised at what you discover. What about your apps? Who are they sending your data to?
Large tech companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, don't create this software for free, they are for-profit companies. Did you take the time to read the user agreement, or did you simply press "I agree"? There's a reason it's so long and tedious.
Remember the Cambridge Analytica data scandal of 2018? The collection of individual profiles, people's preferences, friends, acquaintances, etc., gave rise to individuals, governments, and foreign interests to drastically alter the perception of our social reality. Propaganda, defined as - dissemination of information - facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies - to influence public opinion, is nothing new, it's the foundation of every marketing company, only now it's possible to tailor propaganda specifically for you.
Data mining is the modern-day gold rush. It's extremely easy and takes very little effort for companies and governments to scrape the data of millions of citizens. They've been doing so for many years and have become rather good at it. Privacy guidelines and laws project the illusion of a safer digital society, a sort of social pacifier for the digital landscape. In reality, they're a band-aid on a wound that's already hemorrhaging.
It's time to take a look at our present situation. At the time of writing, we have been experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic for over a year. This situation is at the forefront of individual rights, and may well catalyst us into a future very different from what we know today. History will demonstrate to us time and time again, that governments will leverage events to force political and economic agendas. In times of uncertainty, when people can't work, when families are struggling to feed themselves, what would you sacrifice to go back to "normal"?
In China, it translates to a complete social surveillance system, with facial recognition technology that can identify you (even while wearing a mask), and gait technology that can recognize you by the way you walk. Their systems are so inherently integrated that everything you do passes through a government gateway. If you don't follow the party line, you're no longer permitted to use the system. No travel, no work, no options. China is poised to be a world leader in this technology.
Other countries are following suit. In Russia, facial recognition technology is being used to identify people ordered to stay at home. Israel's government approved the use of counter-terrorism tracking technology, to trace the movement of COVID-19 patients, they are also the first country to implement a Covid-19 digital passport. In South Korea, the government has been collecting location data, camera footage, and even data from credit card purchases.
If you think that these measures couldn't happen in the US or Europe, think again. The US government has been in constant talks with tech companies, exploring ways in which location data can be used to track the spread of the virus.
At the start of the pandemic, the UK said that track-and-trace technology would only be used for contact tracing. This changed throughout the year when the UK police force was allowed access to the data in order to track individuals not adhering to the lock-down rules. In Spain, web and mobile services were implemented to track affected people. The service sends citizen's personal information to governments AND various companies, whose names are NOT disclosed. In times of fear, people tend not to ask too many questions. Italy has been tapping into location data to see if citizens are adhering to lock-down rules. Hungary went a step further and implemented a new law allowing the prime minister to rule by decree.
I'm not saying that tracking the spread of a pandemic is unnecessary, what I am saying is that we currently live under social conditions not aligned with trust, health, or human growth. On the contrary, we live in a global capitalist society whose driving force is based on "the strongest survives", and to survive one needs to consolidate power and wealth. Do we believe that so much valuable data will be destroyed? That any government, potentially losing its grip on power due to social unrest, will simply ignore an opportunity to further consolidate power?
Only time will tell where we are heading, but one important question should be asked: What is more beneficial? Complete surveillance of citizens wrapped in the guise of managing the spread of something that ultimately cannot be managed, or investing in a freely available healthcare system, supported by public and scientific institutions, whilst re-enforcing core services that allow our societies to function?
As things move forward, we may start to hear stories of how contact tracing is helping in the fight against the pandemic. Video interviews of people going back to work, businesses re-opening, all because of wearing a digital wrist band or installing an app on their phones, realigning our perceptions and preparing us for a new era in social control. The cracks in our system are starting to show, and it may not be too long before those cracks turn into gaping holes. The online world is the wild-west of our time, and it's being hijacked by governments and corporations. We need to have serious conversations about privacy and what that means to a free society.