Playing Hide and Seek with Big Brother | Hacker Noon

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We live in the age of constant surveillance, unlike the one described by George Orwell in his seminal book 1984, but the one which might have bought willingly. We regularly surrender information in exchange for free services and convenience. Often, we skim over the fine print of user agreements, and the act of disseminating private information becomes a voluntary task that absolves the media giants from any legal burden [3]. Ian Bogost of The Atlantic calls this “the age of privacy nihilism” and says that the changes in escaping surveillance capitalism are bleak [4].

Even the government that condemns big tech companies for jeopardizing private data pressurizes them to provide backdoors into encrypted communication and devices [5].

There is an assault on personal privacy on all fronts. However, to preserve the dregs of privacy we still have and continue living in hyperconnected societies, we first need to identify how privacy is breached and then use smart security practices to circumvent them.

One of the most popular and easiest ways that privacy is infringed is by the use of data shared on social media websites like Facebook and the internet in general. These websites track our every move on their platform, and the ubiquitous nature and ease make them privy to our most intimate moments.

The easiest way to avoid the companies from getting their hands on our data is to altogether opt-out of their services and ask them to wipe out their hard drives. This is easier said than done; however, personal and eerie the personalized ads might be, Facebook does allow us to interact with strangers to rent apartments in foreign cities and connect with long lost colleagues. A more pragmatic approach would be to understand the terms of the agreement and customize user settings to control better what we share. Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research describes “social steganography,” in which teens use slang, inside jokes, and song lyrics to hide private messages in plain sight; one group understands the meaning of a post while others scroll right by. [6]

However, many privacy issues cannot be fixed just by controlling user settings and sharing in-jokes. Privacy is becoming a collective phenomenon. Privacy is not only about what one does also depend on what “others” disclose about them. Researchers are working on tools that can thus obscure data and boost privacy [7]. Perhaps an underrated way of surveillance is credit tracking. Banks use credit cards to know exactly where we spend our money and on what. Our purchasing habits can reveal a lot more than behaviour, from personal health to revealing essential life events.

Moreover, using eCommerce websites like Amazon not only expose our shopping behaviours but allows their algorithms to nudge and tune our preferences to buy more stuff. Not to go on a fight Clubesque rant, but the easiest way to stop having our financial records being trailed is to use cash. Cash does not leave a credit trail, and abstaining from online payments strips services like Venmo and PayPal to know our purchasing habits. Another mode of transactions gaining prominence is cryptocurrencies, which allegedly call for complete anonymity of purchases. However, blockchains are emerging technologies, and several kinks would need ironing out before we can move out financial systems cryptocurrencies.

Another frightening aspect of surveillance is biometric data collection. The government already had biometric data of all citizens and immigrants who cross her borders. Again sites that allow us to trace our genetic history and DIY genetic testing kits augment the already expanding DNA databases, both at the private and federal levels. Recently, GlaxoSmithKline $300 million deal with 23andMe, a DNA testing company, lets one wonder who would end up with access to their genetic information. While abstinence from these services is a way to go, we can only rely on the discretion of the parties holding the data in these cases. The Future of Privacy Forum released “Privacy Best Practices for Consumer Genetic Testing Services.” These guidelines emphasized protections such as transparency, consent, security, marketing restrictions, and “access, correction, and deletion rights.” [8]

Thus along with personal precautions, it is equally essential for regulatory bodies to uphold privacy and set limits for companies that deal with personal data. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), California’s Consumer Privacy Act, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Carpenter vs. the United States, which grants privacy protections for mobile phone location data, are excellent examples where the State has intervened to restore privacy to the individuals and penalize violators rightfully. Nathan Jurgenson of Wired says, “Today the ease and ubiquity of photography means documentation is far more the rule than the exception,” so choosing not to photograph or post something online conveys meaning to a moment and makes it more personal [1]. Perhaps the traditional notions of privacy do not hold in the digital age, but there have to be new norms of privacy. Publicness should not conflict with privacy; instead, they should reinforce each other. Owing control of what we post makes publicness integral to privacy. After all, obscurity is always our natural and default state of privacy.



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