Friday, June 24, 2011

Redefining Privacy

Nandan Nilekani announced yesterday the throwing open of the Aadhaar platform for development of third party apps. He wants to do an Apple or Android – create a bouquet of services, tapping into the creativity of thousands of skilled developers. Where there is a need, an application will emerge, motivated either by profit or social service considerations.
People are talking about creating secure payment gateways for e-commerce to accept payments from an Aadhaar verified source, scanning and uploading of verified documents with an Aadhaar tag, so that the person need not carry the document again – the possibilities are endless. All this is possible because we are able to identify and tag a person with accuracy.
Once every person in the world is identified, and every object in the world is tagged, and every interaction between these persons and objects has been coded or given an identity in code, then every transaction in the world can in theory be trapped, with myriad ways of search to locate them online.  
Since most of our interactions with the world are through gateways which pass through computers – think banking, credit card payments, office swipe card systems, cctv’s in malls and buildings - our entire lives are being uploaded into digital databases. Couple this with better search techniques – Facebook has just rolled out a technology where you can be identified based on features in photos that are uploaded; billboards can recognize you in the crowd as you walk past, and flash ads targeted at you; apart from your UID your biometric data like shape of your nose and length of your ears will exist in computer databases which will automatically identify you and tag you wherever you go. The mobile phone you carry with you constantly broadcasts your location down to the nearest 500 meters which can be “geo-tagged” and kept on record for posterity. And the latest snooping devices are unbelievably effective, cheap and difficult to find. Any object in your house or office can have a hidden camera and an attached microphone – these devices can now be bought over the internet starting at Rs.500 onwards.
All the data generated from all the above will be stored in databases. There will of course be people with access to these databases, or rather persons with access to software that will have the capability to hunt you out in all this data, and present your entire life’s story in one neatly compiled digital docket, either to people who have the power to access them like the government, or to people who are willing to pay for them. The trend is only helped by social networking sites where your friends post yesterday night’s party photos with you tagged on them.
So what happens to privacy? They say that nothing that you do online is private any more. We should extend that statement to say that everything that you do offline can be stored online, and nothing that exists online is private.
So then, what happens to privacy? We have to get used to a new world where there is no such thing as privacy, at least the way we understand and define it in today’s world. The way we look at it, our personal lives are off limits to our colleagues, what we do at work should be of no concern to those at home, our political views, religious views, groups that we are part of, whom we hang out with, and what we choose to do with our lives, are our business alone, and ours to divulge or not divulge depending on who are dealing with. That definition needs to be relooked at.
In several primitive societies, the concept of privacy is very rudimentary. Apart from the acts of defecation and procreation, very little is private in these societies. Extend that to much more evolved societies like our villages, and there is a little more privacy, but nowhere near what urban westernized notions of privacy have come to mean. Throughout human history, the norms of what is considered private have evolved depending on the times, the technology and the culture.
We are all adapting fast to the new online world. This new world is profoundly changing the way we live and throwing up newer possibilities and concerns in the way humans interact, and our notions of privacy have to change accordingly. A lot of things we now consider private will no longer be so.  Along with the redefinition of what privacy means, we will have to change our cultural and moral rules and taboos. Human nature will perhaps continue to be the same, but morality and culture depend a lot on projection where people like to project images that are different from what they are. As the projection changes, the rules need to evolve to keep pace – and along with that, our mindsets, behaviors, and way of living as well.
And at the pace things are changing, we should be prepared to do a lot of this in our lifetimes. We are headed for interesting times!

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