Saturday, July 05, 2003

Who cares about your privacy anyway?

Every breath you take And every move you make Every bond you break, every step you take I'll be watching you
-- The Police, “Every Breath You Take”

Remember George Orwell’s 1984? Forget the cumbersome technology depicted in this rather grim tale of a Big Brother society. If present trends continue, surveillance tools will be so seamlessly integrated in our environment that we won’t even notice the constant intrusion into our privacy.

Yet if you were lucky, you could still hide, blend in, and pursue a life that remained more or less private in a totalitarian regime. In the brave new world of the Internet, you can bid any hope of anonymity goodbye.

One of the most obvious forms of intrusion is the use of closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) in public places. During one of my trips to Taipei, I can’t help but noticed that CCTVs are installed around many buildings and streets, supposedly for crime prevention. I’m not sure what you think of this, but such mass surveillance makes me uneasy. Of course, one could argue that technically there should not be privacy protection in public places. In a way, social control is deemed necessary for economic efficiency and security.

The rise of a surveillance society
But privacy is, and will be, eroded in countless other ways. In many countries, employers are permitted (within reason) to place all employees under constant surveillance. Apart from CCTV surveillance, employers can bug conversations, analyse computer activities, and use tracking technology like “smart” ID badges to even monitor trips to the loo. It appears then that the workplace of tomorrow will have many features of the Dickensian workhouse.

Your private life is not spared either. These days, mobile phones with Global Positioning System (GPS) are being turned into geographical tracking devices. Some mobile operators are using such technology to provide their subscribers with “useful” information, such as the location of the nearest Star Bucks or an advertisement of “the sale worth waiting for” as you walk into a shopping mall. The question is not whether you want or need these services, but would you feel comfortable being trailed wherever you go? Before long, someone somewhere may be watching as you switch TV channels or make calls on your mobile phone.

Many people nevertheless remained passive towards such encroachment of their personal privacy. It is as if they find it acceptable, a price worth paying for the wonders of targeted marketing.

As Sun Microsystems’ CEO Scott McNealy puts it, “You already have zero privacy – get over it.” Well, does it surprise anyone that Sun was developing software that, according to The New York Times, makes hash of your privacy?

But just because such invasion of privacy has become common doesn’t mean it is any less disturbing. The point of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is that the public would come to accept totalitarian intrusion as part of the normal fabric of life, as something that was actually good for them.

Tip of the privacy iceberg
Not that we always mind advertisements that are specially tailored to our needs. What has us up in arms is how advertisers go about culling personal information to determine our preferences.

For example, the EZ-Link card system that has been implemented for public transport in Singapore could have some serious privacy issues. By linking each EZ-Link card with the owner’s identity card number (something which is possible because all purchasers need to present their identity cards for the purchase), the relevant authorities could monitor commuters’ travelling patterns and arbitrarily determine their various preferences based on the places they frequent. Worse, this information could be sold to third-party firms for targeted marketing.

However, some people have commented that such paranoia is often not grounded in much fact. Still, it is hard to convince people that there is no fire when they see smoke. Although most consumers may not be fully aware of how tracking and targeting technologies work, a mere hint of using them is enough to trigger an Orwellian suspicion that their every move is being watched.

Blatant invasion of privacy
Another initiative that has raised the ire of some consumers is the formation of a consumer credit bureau by the Association of Banks in Singapore (ABS), supposedly to improve banks’ credit-risk management.

What irks people is probably the fact that there is no way they can stop their private details (such as personal particulars and financial status) from being circulated to members or subscribers of the credit bureau, including financial marketing firms and commercial research companies, unless they bank offshore or resort to using cash for all their transactions.

To quote from a notification letter sent by one of the banks: “In this respect, we hereby inform you that we and our officers will be disclosing any and all information relating to you, your personal particulars, your accounts, transactions between you and the bank, your facilities, credit standing and financial position to any credit bureau of which we are a member or subscriber and/or to any other member, subscriber and/or compliance committee of such credit bureau and to any other person to whom disclosure is permitted or required by any statutory provision or law.”

Now, why isn’t there a public outcry over such blatant invasion of privacy? To me, it sounds like a typical case of an industry that’s biting the hands that feed it.

Online, things aren’t any better
Accusations of severe privacy breaches have become almost routine in the wake of high-profile privacy gaffes by companies such as RealNetworks, DoubleClick, and Aureate. DoubleClick, the company everyone loves to hate, received widespread criticism when it revealed a plan to track consumers’ movement online and to attach that data to people’s real names and addresses.

Another problem is that some companies have the habit of changing their privacy policies at every whim and fancy. Online book retailer Amazon.com, for one, seems to change its privacy policy with the seasons. When faced with the recent dot-com crunch, the company suddenly decided to rent customer information to third parties, something it has pledge not to do in its original privacy policy.

Dead companies have no rules
There have also been occasions when a company goes bust, then changes its name, and the “new” company promptly starts selling customer information that the busted firm promised to keep private.

All of which may prompt us to wonder: Who cares about our privacy?

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