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End of Privacy—Are We Past the Last Frontier?

This unparalleled privacy crisis that we are seeing today is well beyond the tipping point.

Published: 15th May 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th May 2022 10:47 AM   |  A+A-

Privacy—abstract as it is—is a deep powerful need of the human, touching our very ‘humanhood’. We are private and social being given to very calibrated exposure of our minds. So far there has been a keen balance, now being disturbed and will leave deep personal and societal psychological scars in the future. This unparalleled privacy crisis that we are seeing today is well beyond the tipping point.

We just crossed the creepy line. 
The inexorable march of technology and digitisation has deeply impacted privacy in all relationships at every level, fundamentally shifting a human’s relationship with himself.  Civilisation had revelled so far in its anonymity, which now sadly seems like just a passing phase in human existence!

The dilemma. Even though in the last 75 years, our world has been “relatively” peaceful, there are always dark stateless (sometimes state) evil forces with full access to technology that threaten to destabilise the world order. This certainly makes a case for trading off individual privacy for overall security, in a calibrated manner. Preceded by two world wars, we have had cold wars and then large-scale terrorism. It was the grisly 9/11 episode that tilted the balance towards total surveillance. Don’t we wish we had advance knowledge to intelligently avert such a humongous disaster? The price had to be privacy.

Who really decides what is evil? For one man’s terrorist is another man’s hero. Where should be the balance between individual rights and state rights? Where is the line? And where are the tools? The need unleashed the means—tech to the fore. Ever wonder what happens to the exabytes of data that are swirling about the universe, about each of us. Your phone is perpetually listened to, wearable devices streaming information, WhatsApp read, emails hacked, financial information accessed, every transaction visible, money tracked, all in real time. A lot of tech is applied on the individual without consent, is addictive, and is always armed with information-seeking radars. Sweetly called cookies!

All that is needed for this random humongous data to become intelligence are super smart self-evolving and improving sensing devices and software, often mutating on their own. Add artificial intelligence (add dollops of data mining, facial expression, gait recognition, trawling social media etc), and finally the right fingers to “dig in”. Artificial intelligence is almost reaching the point of singularity where it competes with human intelligence for the ability to read wise(r) meaning into big data about personal behaviour, motivation, movements, financial transactions, and the like. It’s become almost real.

Scary? Seriously, that’s a yes. Perhaps your thoughts are still private, but that frontier too is being breached. Brain pattern mapping is here to turn thoughts into words. Add an easy amble across all electronic communication, social media etc, and your opinions, political leanings deepest thoughts are on the table. Sounds fantastic. It’s coming up, asap. 

In short, technology is killing privacy. Rapidly. The internet has been co-opted into a 24x7 surveillance tool. This resultant deep and powerful intelligence is available on tap to the state, powerful mega corporates, and to hackers on the deep dark web. An unholy boiling pot is throwing up some very grim scenarios. Particularly when these actionable insights are available to the power-seekers for further dominance of the rulers over the ruled.

And then there is social media and its untrammelled power. Do you really believe that Musk’s real motive for dishing out Rs 3.3 lakh crores for Twitter was just to unfetter your right to free speech? I don’t. Just imagine the potential exertion of power by the super-super rich on society at large.

Your electronic footprint is permanent and privacy is dead—get over it! With all these surveillance technologies in full flow, the lesson is simple—follow the code scrupulously. Transgressions are immediately visible, and legal processes stand to get automated over time. Take the management of most traffic offences today. Things become even more difficult when the corporate starts determining where the line to privacy stops, and commerce begins. What are the limits of capitalism and its morality in an era of no privacy? How far will capitalism go to take profit to insane levels of value extraction from the individual using these very tools?

This is a deadly mix of imponderables. A very slippery road indeed.
Peering into the future, while we may be looking at a physically secure future at a community level, it’s quite a dismal picture for an individual’s stature being minimised. Unless strict legislation and its surgical implementation start now, come 2050, as a society, we will all stand denuded in psychological terms. If some of us still wish to assert, and celebrate, our right to privacy, we will need rocks to slide under. Or go completely off the grid where no internet and no telecom have trod before.
 

rohtash.mal@gmail.com

Ex-corporate honcho and organisational yoda; now entrepreneur and stargazer



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