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October 01, 2017 Sunday 11:13:50 AM IST

How Big a Question is Privacy

Cover Story

I was browsing on my phone the other day, when my dad came over and asked to see my phone. He sat down beside me and drew my attention to the Wi-Fi symbol with its “upload” and “download” arrows, on the taskbar. Despite me not uploading any content to the internet at that point in time, the upload arrow kept occasionally flickering -- a symbol of data transfers that were silently happening in the background, with me completely in the dark on what data was going out of my phone, where it was going and how my data would be used.


This experience pretty much sums up the kind of situation we always find ourselves in, these days. We have come to a point where all of us are just mute witnesses to the overtures of the power that technology has acquired today. It has turned out that the Internet knows more about us than what our close friend or relative would probably know.


This is the backdrop for our discussions on such a truly fundamental human right, as the Right to Privacy. Although it may seem ironic that we are discussing its necessity in a time as advanced as the 21st century, the various aspects concerning the implementation of this right, given our present scenario, are truly worth discussing; so that, the “practical” side of what can actually be provided is not neglected in the intensity of our inclination towards “full and complete privacy for everyone under all circumstances.”


We all have that personal space that we wish is never invaded. It is important for every person to think, decide and go along the lines of his/her own free will, free of the pressure of being watched, free of the concerns about being judged, and free to be the true individual one was created to be. No one should ever be under the duress of justifying his or her opinions and decisions to someone else. This is why our privacy is definitely sacred; its sanctity is of a kind that should never be compromised unless morally unavoidable.


Herein, lays the pause. Our privacy can be compromised; in situations when the greater good is key. If the cyber intelligence of our country noticed a Google search string “Where can I get an AK-47?” would you or I prevent them from snooping on the individual who typed this in and tracking his real motives?


Whether this person turns out to be a criminal or not, this privacy breach would have been essential. Here, the safety of so many lives is being weighed against the violation of one person’s privacy. Under requirements of national security, this right need not hold.


Secondly, we have crossed the point of no return, from where we could’ve asked for an “absolute” right to privacy, meaning one person expects his privacy to be unfailingly protected, at every turn and corner. But the combination of technology and unsuspecting users like us has destroyed this possibility too. How many of us have given up several personal details multiple times, to sign up on social media, sign up for updates or fill up online forms? When you download an app from Play Store for instance, we all get the pop-up that reminds us about the app’s access to our gallery, our contacts, our online activity and our downloads. But giving in to our desire to have the app on our phone, without any further thought, we go ahead and hit “ACCEPT”.


What happens from there is more of a business, than anything else. The app-running software enterprise will take your data and sell it to companies like Amazon and Facebook for instance, which analyse your preferences and put up relevant advertisements before you, whenever they get a chance. This is exactly why after you looked up good deals for a product on an online shopping website and then logged in to your Facebook portal, you can see marketing for related items all over your screen.


Marketing these days thrives on the huge amount of data we knowingly or unknowingly provide across the gates of the Internet. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that lives off our privacy. To a great extent, we ourselves have offered all the disclosure. So one fine day, we wake up to realize that our data has been misused. Simply because, you have no mapping of the path that your data travelled on the Internet, you have no idea who the perpetrator was and how it all got there.


Our information travels every moment from point A to B, without us even realizing it. Once a person has entered the connected world today,  it is no longer possible to isolate the individual like an island anymore. He/she has been caught up via his or her data forever within this huge network of networks. Here, one can never find the true accused.


On top of all of it, we have the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) that links our PAN (Permanent Account Number) cards, bank accounts and biometrics with the Aadhaar database and creates the risk of the sensitive data of several crores of people being leaked to public domain, as has already happened in the past.


Firstly, the data is being collected compulsorily from all Indian citizens, without any concern for their consent. Secondly, the UIDAI does not take any steps to protect the huge ocean of information it has collected, putting tens of thousands of Indians at risk of becoming victims of identity theft, fraud and malpractice. It is worth highlighting here, a probable reason why our government’s cyber facilities continue to be vulnerable to all kinds of evils.


What we need is a new kind of “fundamentality” for a right like this one. A right that is of supreme importance, but a right that is not absolute because of our existence having gotten intertwined with the vines of technology. A right that should never be compromised unless necessary, but can be violated when the question is of the big picture -- as in case of national security. A right which should require organizations like UIDAI to prove their capabilities in protecting the citizen.

Pooja Vinod

The writer is a student of Rajagiri School of Engineering & Technology

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