Privacy and the Digital Age

“Historically, privacy was almost implicit, because it was hard to find and gather information. But in the digital world, whether it’s digital cameras or satellites or just what you click on, we need to have more explicit rules […]” Bill Gates

We live in an age of easier information; information, whether good or bad, worthy or unworthy, travels faster, is more often recorded, and is traceable more easily. Pandora’s box of social information is open, and it will be very difficult to close it now, no matter what data protection assurances and technologies we are given. For every technology securing information, there is likely to be another one to decrypt it or go around it. And the trend towards more open information is only accelerating. Open information has great advantages; more informed constituents, new services, and greater access to knowledge are among its benefits. On the other hand, greater ease of deliberate misinformation, weakening of secrecy, and loss of privacy are among its problematic aspects. And yet, it is the latter, the loss of individual privacy, that is the most worrying to me, more worrying in my view, over the long run, than the loss of any government or corporate secrets.

Every year, we are given new ways of exposing our private lives more easily, not only to those with whom we want to share our lives, but also to everybody else – all ‘privacy policies’, ‘privacy settings’, and the like notwithstanding. For most of us, mature and young alike, we marvel at the greatness and ease of information-sharing technologies and we use them without necessarily paying attention to the possible long-term consequences. It is as if we are given new toys; we rush to play with them but to realise the consequences of our actions only with time. This does impact and will continue to impact our societies in many ways, some of which we can already foresee. Let us take an example: leaders in forty or fifty years from now, at least in the countries where social information-sharing technologies are rife today, will have to deal with the challenge of having a greater degree of their personal and private lives ‘out there’ for others to make use of as they wish. And so, said in another way, if we require to have leaders with no social vulnerability that is common knowledge forty or fifty years from now, what we will likely end up with is either individuals who are suspiciously too clean from a digital record point of view or too recluse from a young age to have not had much of a personal and social record online. We should then ask ourselves, is this the type of leaders we want? Or do we prefer that our future leaders have a normal human aspect like all of us?

Privacy is not about trying to hide things that are illegal or immoral; privacy is first and foremost about giving every human being a healthy degree of liberty to grow and to simply be in an environment that is protective to a certain degree. For the more introvert among us, privacy is equally crucial to regenerate psychologically. We are all evolving and learning beings; we are beings who get influenced by their environment; and we all make mistakes, even sometimes need to make mistakes, without which we do not learn. In the same way that a patient requires privacy with her doctor, a religious person with his clergy, a citizen with her lawyer, and a sportsman with his coach, all of us, and specifically the young among us, gravely need some level of protection of information in our private lives in order to grow and evolve in a healthy manner. People critical of this line of thinking may say that no one shares information today unless he or she wants to. This is not entirely accurate; moreover, referring back to the point above, we are sometimes unfortunately not even aware enough of the consequences of what we do, or the draw towards using new technologies is too strong to resist it at first. Walking a line between protecting one’s privacy and not being socially cut-off from the rest of the world has become a much more difficult exercise of late.

The discussion of the strict boundaries of privacy is becoming more of a social necessity. Unfortunately, the impressive advance of technologies of information only make this debate more pressing and the degree of awareness and the level of education of the users of such technologies all the more important, for their own sake but also for the sake of others around. There is no easy solution to the challenge of privacy vs. growth of technologies of information; we have to maintain a delicate moral balance between the two. But we have to be aware of the challenge first in order to do something about it. So let us start with that…