Saturday, December 25, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Year We Talked Privacy

The year 2010 will be best remembered for the questions it threw up about privacy. On the one hand, governments and figures of authority everywhere have stepped up their scrutiny of people: in the US, debates rage over the invasion of privacy caused by full-body scanners at airports; Indians are going to have to get used to having their biometric data collected; some schools this past year have installed CCTVs in school. Let me bite my tongue before it says Orwell!

On the other hand, we have those who belong to the Great Scrutinised trying to return the favour. Wikileaks, on twitter, links to a poster that says “Intelligence Needs Counter-Intelligence”. With the word redefined to no longer mean ‘disinformation’, the ‘counter-intelligence’ camp has people such as Wikileaks, RTI activists and a few remaining members of what we like to call ‘the free press’, who do more than accept the word of authority figures, that all that is done is for the greater good.

If the right to privacy is the right of an individual to ‘seclude information about themselves and reveal themselves selectively’ (wikipedia) then we are seeing more breaches of privacy than before in the name of safety. We need to not only redefine privacy in light of new technologies, but also ask whose privacy we are talking about. The privacy of an individual differs greatly from that of corporations (which are, nevertheless, granted personhood in law) and governments.

Privacy is also not the same as secrecy, though it’s a distinction governments and corporations are at pains to blur. When the heads of corporate houses invoke the right to privacy, what they really want is for their own excursions in information-gathering and in influencing policy to remain secret. When governments are red-faced over diplomatic cables being made public, what they object to is having already-held suspicions confirmed.

Let’s be honest: we’re all in the business of information gathering. It’s the reason why we hang out at coffee shops, over the neighbour’s wall, at the water cooler and on Facebook (whose position on privacy is, if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear from having your data in the public domain). We are all public creatures by virtue of being human and perfect privacy is possible only with perfect isolation.

Governments and activists operate on the belief that transparency leads to accountability.

Despite the not-very-stringent provisions we have in India to shield the data of individual and larger entities, it has always been possible (though not always legal) to unearth information, even if it’s carefully hidden.

In effect, what we’ve always had is not privacy but an illusion of it. This is one of the arguments that people in favour of the UID offer: that the perceived loss of privacy in having a unified identification number does not outweigh the benefits that many disadvantaged people will gain just by having their individual self recognised. After all, if privacy is inseparable from personhood, it has no meaning for those whose existence is not even recognised by the state. In other words, privacy is a concern only for those who have legal existence.

But as we’ve seen with the Radia tapes becoming public, the intention behind the gathering of data and the effects of its unintended use are two completely different things. Making some data public might have consequences we see as good; but what if, for instance, data is mined to persecute minorities – whether religious, caste-based, or gendered?

One way of achieving privacy is to hide behind a firewall of excess information, like Hasan Elahi did. When he found himself on the US government’s watch-list as a suspected terrorist, and was detained in 2002 and questioned by the FBI, Elahi began to make public every minute of his life as photographic material. He put up massive amounts of material online and called it The Orwell Project. Anybody watching him seriously would have to deal with a tsunami of information – at first with incomprehension and finally with disinterest.

As a blogger said, ‘Everybody is in favour of other people’s openness.’ I’m sure those in the privacy storms will agree – even if only secretly.

This appeared in today's edition of the New Indian Express.


Am awa on vacation, so the links in this piece are pretty sketchy; but for anything Assange related, please go to Zunguzungu. For the rest, all responses only in the new year.

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