All Are Watching
I wrote this column sitting in airports and cafés. My large screen has been scrutinised repeatedly during this time. Somebody even asked me if they could use my laptop to charge their phone. People on the tables next to me stole casual glances at the tabs open in my browser, registering the searches I was making, videos I was watching and people I was chatting with. Ironically, I was writing about privacy.
Privacy has been the buzzword of the internet ecologies we live in. There has been a spate of debates around this in the last decade in India. From the concerns around what will happen to private data with schemes like Aadhaar to Google and Facebook harvesting our private data for targeted advertising, privacy has become a chief concern. However, most of the discussions around privacy are about data disclosure and data usage.
Let me flesh it out with an example. In the earlier days, if you created different accounts for different Google services, you signed Terms of Service agreements. Even though most of us would just click the "accept" button, without reading the fine print in that contract, it protected us against abuse or misuse from Google. That Terms of Service was a platform or service-specific contractual agreement, which could help a customer claim certain rights to privacy, safety, anonymity etc. Each particular instance was a different space of negotiation, where differently worded and implemented policies governed our actions within that particular space. So this assuaged our anxiety about what this private company could do with our data and more importantly who else would be able to access this data. Such a distributed privacy regime was specially useful because it allowed you to create silos of your private data so that what you saw on YouTube was not available to your Orkut or Google Plus networks. The information that you searched for was not a part of the profile your colleagues could access. You had the space to create multiple identities for yourself, clearly compartmentalising things that you wanted to share, show and hide.
In this new consolidated privacy regime, we now have a Facebook-like condition where everything that you do, is now mapped onto one user name or one identity and you have to be more pro-active in filtering and sharing information with your different contacts in the Google world. The onus of protecting privacy is now on the user — and it exploits the fact that most users have an innate faith in the idea that the platforms that they occupy online will keep them safe. This faith gets augmented when it comes to companies like Google who have taken great public pains to paint themselves as heroic warriors against authoritarian states and companies asking for invasive information practices. This service will offer more sensitive location-based, network-based, taste-based results, as algorithms constantly produce profiles of your information practices. However, we must remember that this profile is not available for us to edit.
Nishant Shah is director , research, Centre for Internet and Society
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