Essays
August 31, 2020

Privacy Is A Luxury

Location: Warsaw, Poland
Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Companies know more about us than ever. And within the next decade, they'll inevitably have more data on us. The amount of data held by companies summon dystopian thoughts. While this is understandable, it ignores the fact that we can take action to protect our privacy. Just as wealth doesn't get gifted to the majority of us at birth, nor does privacy. Though companies continue to get challenged on data by lawmakers, it's delaying the inevitable growth of data, not halting it. As privacy becomes more obscured, we must take the appropriate action to achieve our ideal level of anonymity.

Data is one of the most valuable assets in the world. It plays an influential role in mergers and acquisitions. As a result, certain groups say that data is a commodity (a commodity defined as a resource that is sold by a producer and purchased by another party to use). Hence, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, called upon researchers to devise a way of valuing and taxing data like a commodity. World leaders are not wrong to view data through the lens of a commodity, as there are similarities. For example, Experian, a multi-billion dollar company, gathers as much data as they can, aggregates it and sells it. With that said, data shouldn't get viewed as being a commodity in the same way oil is. One would know the intrinsic value of a tanker of oil, but the same can't get said for a container of Facebook's servers. When data gets compared in parallel to a traditional commodity, it doesn't fulfil the criteria. Whereas traditional commodities are standardised, fungible, finite in supply and expendable - data is not. Therefore, it's not possible to label data as a commodity.

There has always been a correlation between privacy and wealth. Pre-internet, the idea of privacy mustered the vision of a house in the wilderness, with nature serving as a barrier from prying eyes. The internet has changed the method by which one achieves privacy. Previously, an individual would've invested in a house away from prying eyes. Now, that same individual invests in software to guard themselves against the invisible eye. A large investment isn't required to improve your privacy. However, an investment is needed, though not always monetary. When you consider that the majority of the world's population works to serve their loved ones hot meals every day, privacy can still get viewed as a luxury. Though the methods to achieve privacy evolve with time, the core meaning of privacy never waivers. I would argue that as the wealth gap widens, so does the privacy gap. As the wealthy become wealthier, they become more able to afford sophisticated resources.

Online privacy remains a right. When signing up to any platform, you get presented with the terms, at which point you get to decide if you will abide by their rules or not. If not, you won't get to use the platform. That's understandable. If you got presented with the terms for a physical retailer before entering their store, you might choose not to enter. However, the terms presented by many online platforms tend to be convoluted. Nobody reads them. Hence, nobody knows what they're giving away. There are websites which do an admirable job of breaking down the terms of platforms, but platforms should be doing an adequate job. Food items don't get obscured with jargon, so why are online platforms? It seems like an impossible task to take on a corporation which deems itself above a nation-state; hence users must make conscious decisions when joining platforms. Do you want to be the person who complains about Facebook on Facebook? Wouldn't you prefer to take the initiative to leave the platform? After all, you don't get forced to join the platform.

Everyone is entitled to privacy, but the amount of privacy one can afford depends on their situation. If your values don't align with those of a platform, you can shun it. Though, that's easier said than done when one company owns multiple platforms. If that's the case, you still have a choice to limit your exposure. Social media platforms aren't forcing you to share your every thought with them. And, smart devices such as Amazon's Alexa don't get planted in your home. The will of the individual plays a role. When you have an in-person conversation, you alter your words and tone to the ears which might be listening. The digital world also has ears, albeit invisible ears. Before communicating online, you must have an idea of the people who will hear your message. Because at the moment, people are sharing information that The Secret Intelligence Service wouldn't be able to get out of them. By not sharing your data with a platform, you risk getting excluded from opportunities. By asserting your right to privacy, you have to be comfortable with that. We're all entitled to a level of privacy, regardless of our situation. Naturally, there must be an effort to close the gap between wealth and privacy. However, we shouldn't assume that only the wealthy can afford privacy.

Privacy might be an abstract concept, but it's not dead. That's not to say I am oblivious to the fact that every year more data is created, and the methods in which companies gather data become more sophisticated. For example, many Android Partners who manufacture and sell low-cost phones pre-install apps, leaving the data of users vulnerable. And, an extreme example of data collection is the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where 270,000 people downloaded an app, leading to a data breach for 87 million Facebook users. But, in such cases, we were not forced to purchase those phones or be on Facebook. The truth is, the barometer for which we measure privacy will continue to get pushed, but that doesn't mean privacy is dead. Privacy is just more nuanced than it has ever been.

As society has moved from small data to big data within a generation, the meaning of privacy has become nuanced. Previously, privacy manifested itself in physical forms, for example, tinted car windows. Now, when the topic of privacy gets discussed, one assumes the discussion is referring to online privacy. As there has been such a quick transformation in data, we tend to question if privacy is still alive. Though the invisible barrier for privacy continues to get tested, we must resist the temptation to move the needle passively. In an interview, the former Google executive, Eric Schmidt, commented the following on Google's mantra: "We get right up to the creepy line but never cross it.". Over time, with enough challenges, that creepy line will move. Many people will be led, until one day, when they question if privacy is still alive. Unless you want to live like a monk, online privacy has its limitations; hence we've got to get better at protecting it.

For the majority of people, online privacy has its limits if they want to function as a productive member of society. You have to be comfortable rendering yourself out of the loop if you're going to achieve a level of anonymity. Being out the loop is often said in a negative tone, I believe it's a positive. By being out of the loop, you can be driven by your curiosity rather than that of society. If you're concerned about your privacy, yet on every social platform, you have a problem. Some may argue that you need to be on specific social media platforms to log-into services, however many services offer direct sign-up options. You can't be lazy if you want to protect your privacy, because the shift from convenience to surveillance is an easy one. It's too easy to blame a corporation. Even if you do, I doubt they'll listen. Hence, you have to take action for yourself. I'm conscious of my online privacy; thus, I limit myself to a select few platforms which provide me with the most value. I'm aware of the fact that those platforms are tracking me, but that's the cost of admission.

I've taken action to protect my online privacy. Many people foolishly mock regulations; however, many of the positive directions technology companies have taken are due to regulation. Though I appreciate favourable regulations, I don't rely on them to protect my online privacy. Laws are essential for society; they help to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. And, just as a set of rules govern doctors, a set of rules should govern data giants as well. However, one shouldn't rely on regulations. It's up to you as an individual to limit the stranglehold platforms have on your data. The less data platforms have on you, the more power you have as an individual. Don't fall prey to using free services in which you become the product. Pay for services like email, though this feeds into the thesis of privacy being a luxury - it always has been. But, everyone can afford some level of privacy, whether that involves paying for a virtual private network, or closing accounts you have on social platforms. Everyone can achieve a level of anonymity.

Privacy is a luxury. But, there are actions, however small they may be that we can take to increase our level of anonymity. It's too easy to say that only those with justifiable means can afford privacy. As more data gets created year over year, we should embrace it, but be cautious of how much we share. You wouldn't send someone money without knowing what you'll get in return, so think twice before you sign-away any identifiable information. Big data can indeed be weaponised and used against us; however, it can also benefit society in industries such as healthcare. We must take action to secure a sense of online privacy for ourselves. You don't want the records of your past used against you. As long as you make an effort towards enhancing your privacy, it isn't gone.