On Internet Privacy

How we can trust that the world actually exists and that we’re not just being deceived by some evil genius.  -Descartes

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have would have heard, read, or discussed the phrases “privacy of your messages”, “security of data on the internet”, and “alternatives for Whatsapp” multiple times in the last few days. But just to give you a quick recap, on January 4, Whatsapp updated its privacy policy which initiated a row of questions and concerns. So, I went ahead and read the policy word-by-word and this is what I understand.

The policy isn’t about WhatsApp sharing any more of our general data with Facebook than it does already, as it has been made abundantly clear in the policy, it is about using our data and our engagement with its platform to enable shopping and other business services, to provide a platform where businesses can communicate with us and sell to us, all for a price they will pay to WhatsApp. Also, there are differences in Europe in what WhatsApp can do, given GDPR. So what is all this fuss about? The fact that Facebook has previously had some troubles with data privacy, was the first reason this controversy intensified on such a large scale. Secondly, the fact that the changed terms of service were mandatory, that users would need to accept the change or lose their accounts, made headlines globally and caused a viral stir on social media. And, then Elon Musk posted this –

Following this, a huge number of people started considering alternatives to WhatsApp (more on that later).

And so, the question we are all asking ourselves is, should we stop using WhatApp? To answer this I will quote Zak Doffman’s article in Forbes, “The short answer is no, nothing has really changed. WhatsApp’s data sharing hasn’t really changed, its security hasn’t changed, it remains the largest end-to-end encrypted platform available, and one that’s likely be used by all those you communicate with. WhatsApp is materially better than SMS and Facebook Messenger, its mainstream alternatives. It is secure cross-platform unlike iMessage, and it’s end-to-end encrypted by default, unlike Telegram.

But a matter of bigger concern, these events have brought to the foreground, is the privacy of our data on the internet. While your messages are secure, your data could become fair game as the platform builds its commercial offerings and risks falling to the temptation that data might provide as it looks to accelerate those revenue models. And that’s the conversation I want to initiate.

More than 20 years ago, a movie named The Truman Show was released. I was suggested this movie by Netflix a couple of months ago (aha, the irony). The story is of a man named Truman Burbank who gradually realizes that his entire life is an elaborately constructed ruse. His friends and family members are actually actors; his every move is captured by 5,000 hidden cameras and broadcast to the world. The film predicted privacy invasion, and the existential quandary of whether to live for yourself or an audience—be it television or social media.

By Source, Fair use

I can’t think of a more accurate representation of the times we live in. Surely we aren’t followed by 5,000 cameras day in and day out, but a lot of aspects of our daily life are being monitored. I am not saying it has not benefitted us. The internet connectivity revolution has made our lives increasingly convenient, from recommending shows that match our taste, to organizing our grocery. But what has followed needs our attention.  For starters, consumers seem increasingly resigned to giving up fundamental aspects of their privacy for convenience in using their phones and computers, and have grudgingly accepted that being monitored by corporations and even governments is just a fact of modern life. At the same time, corporations have started prioritizing commercialization over securing the privacy of their userbase. So, it’s important now more than ever to treat privacy as the most important of all human rights in the digital world.

There are three aspects of privacy that are especially relevant in the digital world. The first aspect of privacy in the digital world is the idea that we all have better control over our personal information. This means that I – as a user – have the right to view the content of databases containing information about me and no one is allowed to make any use of this information without my consent. I retain the privilege to agree to the terms of use before I download an app onto my cell phone or begin to use a freeware. But I am sure you can understand what the problem is with the approach. It is FICTION.

It simply isn’t possible to speak about consent to violations of privacy in a world in which data is processed in many ways and for many purposes, some of which cannot be foreseen at the time when consent is granted. Furthermore, every beginning scholar of behavioral psychology will tell you that no one reads the terms of use, even when they are phrased concisely or displayed in large print — neither of which is the case, of course. Moreover, these terms may be filled with technical and legal jargon and we just can’t expect everyone to be fluent in them. As a result, commercial entities avail themselves of huge tranches of private information without having obtained real consent for doing so. Perhaps the solution is to start with clearer legislation — national or international — that defines reasonable and legitimate uses of personal information.

The second aspect of privacy is about the most basic connotation of the right to privacy — the “right to be left alone.” I first came across this aspect in Privacy in the digital age: comparing and contrasting individual versus social approaches towards privacy published in Ethics and Information Technology, SpringerTo quote Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, “In the discourse on privacy, we tend to deal chiefly with questions of controlling the transmission or management of information after it has been collected, with regards to issues of data anonymization, security, and encryption. But what we need at the present time is to ask whether there really is a commercial, business, or public need to collect our private data so obsessively. Against the clear advantages of technological progress, commercial convenience, and even law enforcement, we must weigh the chilling effect on curiosity, on trust, on creativity, on intimate activity, on the ability to think outside the box — which is the critical spark to innovation.

The third aspect of privacy is related to the phenomenon, known as the “autonomy trap”. Privacy should make it impossible for commercial or government entities to combine our personal data with big data amassed from other people in order to construct a precise personality, psychological and behavioral profiles through machine learning. In a world where it is possible to pool and analyze information about us in order to generate buying and behavior recommendations “just for you” (purchases on Amazon, shows on Netflix, navigation guides such as Waze), we in effect are unwittingly surrendering some of our decision-making autonomy to systems that know what is the best route to our destination and what we should eat.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal in the spring of 2018 took the lid off the exploitation of personal data in order to sway the elections in many countries. This showed that the right to privacy can go far beyond individual control of information and extends to a threat to the very possibility of conducting a sound democratic process, and thus — of protecting all human rights.
So, in the digital world, privacy must be seen as a crucially important right for us as a society, as a collective. At the conceptual level, it needs to go through the same process of evolution as its older sibling, the right to freedom of expression. Just as freedom of expression started out as the right of individuals to scream to their heart’s content, and developed into a collective right that sustains a rich and functional public discourse so that we can engage in a healthy democratic process, so too privacy must grow and develop — from the right of individuals to trade in their own data, into a collective right of defense against autonomy traps, in the context of elections and mind control.
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