April 7, 2020

Privacy Matters

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The topic of user privacy is a delicate one, to say the least. It’s relatively easy to persuade businesses to get onboard with the idea of privacy, as it can be easily related to a monetary value. For individuals, however, it’s a different story. The typical response “If I have nothing to hide, then why do I care?” Is the socially acceptable narrative, regurgitated by those too naive to scratch the surface and understand the social implications. A lack of knowledge should not be seen as a weakness however, on the contrary, it’s an opportunity to grow and become an informed and active citizen.

This article is for those intrigued by the subject of privacy, a starting point, so to speak, of a topic having the capacity to affect every part of our lives. That being said, let’s dive in and start in a place most can relate to. The ever-present smartphone!

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We intentionally carry around a device capable of tracking our every movement, recording what we say, tracking our purchases, our affiliations, our waking and sleeping patterns, likes, dislikes, friends, contacts, appointments, finances, even our private desires. With apps and accessories, this gets compounded even further. Every detail of our waking life is trusted to this little device. No one can deny, the smartphone has become an intricate part of modern-day living. To put it bluntly, the smartphone is a data collection and tracking tool we not only desire, but willingly submit to.

If we can accept this simple fact, then the next question should be slightly easier to explore.

Who has access to our data?

All this information has to go somewhere, right? If you’re an Android user, a large portion of it goes to Google. Don’t believe me? Try searching for “How to download your Google data”. You may be surprised at what you find. What about your apps? Where are they sending data to? Do you think developers create apps for free? Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, do you believe they build networks, software, and communications platforms, all out of the goodness of their hearts? Did you read the user agreement? Or simply press “I accept”? There’s a reason it’s so long and tedious. We need to understand how these companies make money from our data.

Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal? The collection of individual profiles, people’s preferences, friends, acquaintances, etc., gave rise to individuals, governments and foreign interests, to drastically alter the perception of social reality. Propaganda, defined as - dissemination of information - facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies - to influence public opinion, is nothing new. It’s the very foundation of every marketing company. Only now, it’s possible to tailor it specifically for you.

Data mining is the modern-day gold rush. If you expect guidelines like the European GDPR to protect you, then you may be in for a surprise.

I performed an experiment recently, in order to validate the worthiness of GDPR. I signed up with an online recruitment agency, after creating an account, I uploaded a fairly mundane CV. Once complete, the company emailed me, stating how they would handle my data. In the small print, they disclosed that my data would be sent to countries outside the GDPR zone. I followed the process, exercising my rights, requesting my data to be removed from their system.

Now, this is where things get interesting. To have my data removed, I would have to send a copy of my passport, in effect, providing them with personal and confidential documents, in order to remove less sensitive information. I decided to contact ICO.org, (the organisation supposed to enforce the GDPR). I was informed by a complaints officer that the company was allowed to do this, and there was nothing I could do. It gets better, if you want to complain about the ICO decision, there is a route, but they state in their email, it’s unlikely they will look into it.

It’s extremely easy and takes very little effort for companies and governments to scrape data of millions of citizens. They’ve been doing so for many years, and have become rather good at it. Privacy guidelines and laws project the illusion of a safer digital society, a sort of social pacifier, if you will, for the digital landscape. In reality, they’re a band-aid on a wound ready to hemorrhage.

We’re beginning to have an understanding of the threats that we may or may not face in our digital age. It’s time to take a look at our present situation. At the time of writing, we are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. This current outbreak is at the forefront of individual rights, and may well catalyst us into a future very different from what we know today. History will show us time and again, that governments will leverage events to force political and economic agendas. In times of uncertainty, when people can’t work, when families are struggling to feed themselves, what would you sacrifice to go back to “normal”?

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In China, it translates to a complete social surveillance system, with facial recognition technology that can identify you (even while wearing a mask), and gait technology that can recognise you by the way you walk. Their systems are so inherently integrated that everything you do passes through a government gateway. If you don’t follow the party line, you’re no longer permitted to use the system. No travel, no work, no options. China is poised to be a world leader in this technology.

Other countries are following suit. In Russia, facial recognition technology is being used to identify people ordered to stay at home. Israel’s government recently approved the use of counter-terrorism tracking technology, to trace the movement of COVID-19 patients. In South Korea, the government has been collecting location data, camera footage and even data from credit card purchases.

If you think that these measures couldn’t happen in the US or Europe, think again.

The US government is in talks with tech companies, exploring ways in which location data can be used to track the spread of the virus. In Spain, web and mobile services have been implemented to track people affected. The service sends citizen’s personal information to governments AND various companies, whose names are NOT disclosed. In times of fear, people tend not to ask too many questions. Italy has been tapping into location data, to see if citizens are adhering to lockdown rules. Hungary has gone a step further and is implementing a new law, allowing the prime minister to rule by decree.

I’m not saying that tracking the spread of a pandemic is unnecessary, what I am saying is that we currently live under social conditions not aligned with trust, health, or human growth. On the contrary, we live in a global capitalist society whose driving force is based on “the strongest survives”, and to survive one needs to consolidate money and power. When all is said and done, do you believe that so much data will simply be destroyed? That any government losing its grip on power, due to social unrest, will simply let go of any opportunity that presents itself?

Only time will tell where we are heading, but one important question should be asked. What is more useful: Complete surveillance of citizens, wrapped in the guise of managing the spread of something that ultimately cannot be managed, or investing in a free and available healthcare system, supported by public scientific institutions, and investing in healthcare professionals, and core services, which allow our societies to function?

As things move forward, will we start to hear stories of how contact tracing is helping in the fight against the pandemic? Video interviews of people going back to work, businesses re-opening, all because of wearing a digital wrist band or installing an app on their phone? Will our perceptions be slowly realigned in order to prepare us for a new era in social control? The cracks in our system are starting to show, and It may not be too long before those cracks turn into gaping holes.

For a primer on our current technology and its capabilities, I recommend a documentary from (2019) Called Dataland, which you can find on Amazon.

© blupace 2020