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Brislen on Tech: What's the big deal with privacy?

Paul Brislen, Editor. 26 June 2020, 11:52 am

"In the 20s and 30s it was the role of government... the 50s and 60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I'm talking about the Internet. I'm talking about cell phones. I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?"

- The West Wing

What right do you have to privacy and why does it matter?

As I write this I can see two devices connected to the internet and actively using it. One is this machine which is a Windows device and has a browser open, WhatsApp and Word, which traditionally wouldn't have bothered reporting on my activity much but these days is an online service so probably does report back to base.

The other device is a MacBook Air which also has a browser open, but also my email, a message app that's tied to my phone, another message app that's for emergency use only, Microsoft Teams which is connected to one client, and Zoom, which is connected to another.

Those are the things I can see. No doubt the operating systems themselves are constantly scanning for updates and communications and the security apps I have are scanning everything.

Privacy at last

I also have an iPhone on the desk that is connected to more things than I can bother describing and is constantly checking in for updates about software but also sharing my location with a national network of tracking beacons known as the Vodafone cellphone network.

My watch is likewise connected to everything and goes with me everywhere and my earbuds are in my bag and connect to laptops, phone and watch if I activate them plus they all talk to my Find my Phone app when I want them to in case I lose them.

My wallet is in my bag and it too has a tracking device in it because, well, frankly I keep leaving it places.

The printer on my desk also reports back to base on a regular basis in case there are updates needed and is also connected to the internet so I can email print jobs to it from various devices around the place.

I laugh in the face of those surveys that ask how often I am on the internet and which don't have a "when am I ever OFF the internet" box to check.

Then there's virtual movements.

I have an email account (well, OK, I have five at the moment) and I have a WhatsApp account, a Signal account, a Google account, a Twitter account, a Teams account, I'm on LinkedIn and on Instagram and have a Facebook account for work purposes only. As I move around online I verily slosh about and am burdened with trackers and cookies and other forms of monitoring for just about everything I do online. Even my browser tracks my movements even when I'm in "incognito" mode, which is just a nice way of saying "at least you tried".

Oddly my phone number is unlisted.

Behind the monitor is a giant window but I have the blinds pulled because otherwise I can't see the screen properly. To my right is a set of doors with windows in that looks out onto what I laughingly call my back garden but which is basically a pile of weeds between my house and my rear neighbour's. While I'm in my office my expectation of privacy is quite high but it probably shouldn't be because my every move is traceable even as I move between rooms in my house.

Generally speaking I don't think I'm an outlier in terms of connectivity and I take privacy seriously, but a search for me online provides an eerily accurate picture of my life and I'm sure a similar search would do likewise for you.

Privacy is a really big deal, yet we seem to have given a lot of it away without a second thought.

It's boiling the frog territory. We opted in, then we accepted the updated terms and conditions, then we stopped reading the end user licences, then we accepted all and now we just go with the flow. If they want it, they can have it.

Yet privacy is really important and we should guard it carefully because once it's gone, there's no getting it back.

Privacy is often misconstrued as meaning "I have something to hide" when it's not.

I have nothing to hide (that I'll tell you about) but that doesn't mean I leave my doors unlocked or walk around without clothes on in the city street. I don't read out my bank account number on the radio and I don't invite people to wander in and out of my house while I'm out.

I don't have anything to hide but I do value my privacy. Is that odd? I don't think it is. I'm pretty sure most people would fall into that category - they want privacy but also the convenience of being able to pick up that audio book exactly at the point where their written book left off last night. This kind of interconnectedness is really useful and means we can benefit from the internet in ways our grandparents would only have dreamed about.

But it also means we put a huge amount of trust into those companies and organisations we deal with on a regular basis. We trust they will treat our data with care and with consideration for our privacy. We trust they won't sell it to the highest bidder or even to that guy who wants to buy a thousand email addresses online.

We trust that people and companies we deal with will do the right thing, yet the evidence is that many of them won't and our details will be shared, sold, pilfered, used against us and generally trampled on in the rush to make money off our private data.

Many years ago I read a novel called "The Shockwave Rider" by John Brunner - a British science fiction writer who considered a future where private data could either benefit a few megacorporations or all the people. Given he was writing in 1975, that's pretty good guesswork on his part. It's a dystopian world he creates but (without spoiling the plot) his hero faces a choice - give everyone access to everyone else's information so we're all on the same level playing field or allow a few multinationals to own all the data and use it for profitable purposes.

I don't think we're too far removed from that reality.


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