Privacy in the 21st century seems to be an increasingly fuzzy notion.
In the not-so-distant past, it was only my close friends who were aware of my whereabouts at any given time. Few knew what items I had recently purchased. Where I went after work. How I spent my weekend.
These days, thanks to technological ‘advancements’, extraordinary effort is required to keep such information under wraps. Even if you’re not a social media over-sharer, electronic cookies, inbuilt mobile GPS, and sophisticated facial recognition systems render our every move trackable, traceable and generally know-about-able.
“But who cares?” I hear so many people ask. “I have nothing to hide!”.
Everyone has something to hide.
I don’t mean that the average Joe runs a meth lab side-hustle to supplement their day job, or secretly harbours kiddy-fiddling tendencies. What I do mean is that everyone has elements of their life they would prefer un-shared with the wider world.
I, for example, am more than happy to strip off and rock out to Taylor Swift songs when I’m home alone with the curtains firmly closed. But if footage of my minimally-clad living room boogie sessions was to find its way onto the internet — or into the hands of someone demanding compensation to keep it off the internet — I would be somewhat less nonchalant.
I may have no qualms informing my doctor when I have a sloppy bowel motion or a pesky ingrown pubic hair, but I’d probably prefer if my boss didn’t know.
I might tell my friends where I’ll be hanging out on Saturday night. But if that creepy Tinder guy with the eye twitch and knife fetish had access to my weekend whereabouts… well, I might just put those plans on the back burner.
Privacy is not just about hiding things we do that are wrong. It’s about keeping personal things personal.
But as time marches on and technology with it, privacy is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. A privilege that we have to work increasingly hard to preserve.
Almost every day, it seems that a new story emerges showcasing the sinister and calculating ways in which our private information is being used against us.
An article published by the ABC revealed that our online habits and web histories actually guide the prices we’re offered when it comes to online purchases.
When booking flights, for example, airline companies access our web cookies to find out if we’ve repeatedly checked a specific flight time. And as a reward for our persistence and patience, they’ll bump up the price — just for us — safe in the knowledge that we want that flight so badly we’d be willing to fork out almost anything for it.
So we’re charged $300 to fly, while the person in the seat beside us secures their spot for just $150.
And be under no illusion; this dastardly use of our data is not limited to airline purchases. Be it hotel bookings, rental car bookings or any other kind of bookings, with enough of our data on hand, corporations can squeeze us for as much as they believe — nay, know — we’re prepared to pay.
Tech companies are, of course, more than happy to lend a helping hand. For the right price, that is.
Google and Facebook, while ‘free’ to use, have somehow managed to become two of wealthiest companies on earth. How, you ask? By tapping into our private lives, and selling on our casually donated data. Data which is enormously valuable to their true customers.
There’s a reason why Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use iDevices. There’s a reason why Mark Zuckerberg bought up all of the houses surrounding his own, and has black tape covering his phone and laptop cameras.
I don’t know about you, but if my cook isn’t eating the meal they created… something’s not right.
So our data is blatantly snaffled and sold. And when it comes to our privacy, that’s not great. But it gets so much worse.
Anyone who watched season 1 of Black Mirror remembers the chilling episode in which a social credit system defined the rewards, privileges and punishments citizens received. As the episode progressed, life fell increasingly apart for the harmless protagonist character, who experienced a drastic drop in her social credit score following a series of unfortunate events. By the end (spoiler alert), she was rendered completely incapable of maintaining her life as a functioning member of society.
Sounds pretty awful, right? Lucky it’s just a TV show.
Except that it’s not.
China is currently in the process of implementing a similar social crediting system. It combines citizens’ financial, social, legal and political credit ratings into one ‘convenient’ centralised social trustability score. A score that can be monitored and tweaked through by the 50 gazillion public CCTV cameras splattered around the city. Cameras equipped, of course, with sophisticated facial recognition technology.
As in Black Mirror, a Chinese citizen’s score dictates the privileges and punishments dished out to them.
Toe the government party line, be a good boy, pay your taxes, and you might receive discounted rates, or have access to a better school for your kids. But drop some points by paying your rent a day late or — heaven forbid — speaking out about the government… well, you might just find yourself unable to travel on public transport, secure rental accommodation, or even leave the country.
This is not a fiction. These are not conspiracies. These are established truths. This is the world we’re living in. This is real stuff, already happening to real people.
And don’t be so cocky as to think such Orwellian monitoring systems are being used exclusively in China.
Walmart recently proclaimed intent to equip shopping trolleys with bio-metric censors to measure shoppers’ heart rates, temperatures and even rate of movement throughout the store. Because, you know, apparently they need detailed physiological data to identify when customers are stressed and in need of assistance.
The whole situation is truly, truly f*@!ed.
But what can we do? Is there any way to protect our privacy in an age when our information is collected, collated, peddled to the highest bidder and used as bribery and blackmail to keep the populace in line?
Fortunately, some systems do exist to safeguard our privacy. They’re not perfect… but they’re a start.
- Brave is a free web browsing alternative to Chrome, Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. It allows you to cruise the internet without ads popping up or cookies tracking your every move.
- Duck Duck Go is an internet search engine alternative to Google. Unlike Google, it doesn’t track your searches, and therefore doesn’t pull up search results specific to what it thinks you should see.
- VPNs like Private Internet Access (PIA) allow the data to be encrypted as it leaves your computer, enabling you to browse the web anonymously.
- LastPass is a secure, password storage website. Log in with a single password, and it reminds you of every other password you need. In this way, LastPass makes it doable to have different passwords for everything, creating a much bigger job for hackers should they wish to steal your cash/identity.
If that’s not enough… there’s always the more extreme, more foolproof options. Moving to a hut in the woods and living off the grid etc.
For those of us less inclined to entirely forgo our lives as we know them, ditching the convenience of smart phone might be a more plausible move. The good old Alcatels and Nokias that simply make calls and send/receive text messages make us much harder to track — particularly if our computers are equipped with the safeguards detailed above.
I know it sounds extreme. And sure, it might involve flopping out a Melways from time to time to help with navigation. And music would need to be stored on an alternative device. And you couldn’t refresh your Facebook feed every third minute.
But it wasn’t really so long ago that we were doing all that stuff anyway. And somehow we survived.
The only question remaining now is what we value more: our convenience or our privacy.