Shrinking Personal Space In The Online World: Data Privacy Concerns

The days of complete privacy or offline days were a luxury that was last experienced by the generation born in 80s. A time when a secret whispered into your best-friend’s ear often went to the grave with them. The time before personal computer was personal time. Personal, private spaces existed before the computer invaded our homes and mobiles became ubiquitous. A sealed letter did not need encryption, it would be read by the sender and the receiver and if you were a minor, probably your parents.

Cut to 2020 and you have sensational news flashing on our tv sets about WhatsApp messages sent three years ago. When did our privacy jaywalk out of the browser window? In the age of smartphones, we need to redefine the concept of personal space.

Let’s understand the two categories of personal space every individual has – a personal space that consists of an individual and her details like photographs, messages, residential address, sexual orientation, places travelled to, medical reports etc. and the next category consists of professional space – companies worked for, salaries drawn, awards won, disciplinary action taken, appraisal forms etc. It’s a dangerous mix when you start jotting down the information that can be hacked into. Even one of these segments has the potential to create havoc into a person’s life if misused. Right from hacking into the webcam of devices to using the content from personal messages, the consequences are grave. I have deliberately used the example of a woman to emphasise how digital modes of existence have encroached upon safe spaces available for a woman.

The advent of smart cameras and AI-powered computer vision solutions bring about the next level of security. They are being used for automated intruder detection and help in better safety of premises by allowing face-recognition based entry into sensitive areas. But this technology can be very easily misused for privacy breach – whether into an office with sensitive information or a person’s home. The earlier version of CCTV cameras used analogue tapes that were hard to store, hard to view multiple times and eventually got corrupted with time. A lot of time and effort was needed for viewing tapes, manually entering each cassette into the VCR and then letting it play. Cameras were only referred for very specific cases to solve crimes. Digital cameras changed all that and smart cameras went one step further. It’s now possible for an AI algorithm to identify a face in a video from a photograph of a person and it can scan hours of camera footage without getting tired. If needed, a person can be identified through all the public cameras he steps into – traffic signals, mall parking, atm machine, high-security buildings entry and exit, lifts, airports, railway stations etc.

The same kind of digital tracking is available by GPS in phones. Even when data is switched off, GPS is actively tracking. Everyone uses google maps or apple maps, some sort of navigation device on phone. This provides Google or Apple with highly precise data on the places that are frequented. Google knows about all the people’s houses you visit, all the malls you go shopping, your favourite restaurants, cafes, pubs and even the route you take for your office to commute every day. WhatsApp’s new feature of live location sharing is being misused by companies to pressurise employees into giving their exact location. In families,  a suspicious partner can force the other one to keep the location on at all times in order to track their movement through the day. The convenience of finding a place easily and independently has been used to rob us of our freedom to get lost.

Internet is designed to be a data-consuming entity. Everything you get for free, is not free, giving rise to the modern saying, ‘When you are getting something for free, you are the product’. When a person creates an account on a new app or creates an email id or plays a game online with a Facebook friend, the app asks for permission to use the photograph of a person and other contact information. The box is generally ticked by default. If a person is alert, he will uncheck the box before logging in or creating an account. In reality, very few are bothered by what information we are willingly giving to an app and how they plan to use it. It is simpler to install a firewall in a computer to save it from potential hackers but it is nearly impossible to make a person understand not to give away personal information. Similarly, all the websites using cookies store a lot of personal information on their servers about a person but the process to disable cookies is so cumbersome, hardly anyone does it. Again, if someone disables cookies, he has to do it on every device and every browser he uses.

Infamous for creating non-consensual porn, fake news, hoaxes and financial frauds, Deepfakes are emerging as one of the most disturbing tools in a world of growing data privacy concerns. Another disturbing element is the use of virtual assistants like Siri and Amazon Alexa. They are always in listening mode, often picking up keywords and later using it to customise ads sent to us. Nothing remains personal anymore.

The world is still coming to terms with this major loss of privacy. The ethics of the digital presence and its misuse are questionable, but not illegal, yet. In 2016, The European Union Parliament approved the General Data Protection Regulation ( GDPR) and enforced it in 2018. This step was taken to establish a framework which protects their citizens rights. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB), based in Brussels, was formed to bring together national data protection authorities of different ember states, while the Personal Data Protection Bill in India outlines the establishment of a Data Protection Authority in Section 49, Chapter 10.

It’s impossible to exist without having a digital footprint. Bank transactions, photography, travel, booking tickets and hotels — everything is achieved with an internet connection. There needs to be more awareness among people so that they can securely transact online and stay safe. If required, employ non-digital solutions. Even Mark Zuckerberg puts tape over the webcam of his MacBook. A little cautious when being in the online space is the need of the hour.

One needs to understand the spaces which are personal and keep them digital free. And for everything else, there is the Robert Frost poem called Mending Wall, that talks of ‘Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out’. Know what you are keeping out when you are building a safe, non-encroach-able digital space for yourself. This peace of mind will not come for free, you’d have to buy this peace of mind.

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Kunal Kislay
Co-founder and CEO of Integration Wizards Solutions, Kunal Kislay is a B.Tech IIT Bombay alumnus with over a decade of experience in enterprise mobility, Internet of Things, AI, Neural networks and Machine learning. Creating solutions for a vast array of verticals made him understand the pulse of technology and its changing paradigms. Mentoring a team to tackle impossible challenges is integral to his nature, a trait he actually prides himself on. A smooth combination of fearless and fun, working with Kunal is an adrenaline rush for those passionate about technology.

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