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Is Data Privacy a Luxury Now?

In an age of constant connectedness and digital monitoring, access to privacy is becoming the new digital divide. Can you afford it?

At one time, in free societies, freedom from surveillance was mainly a problem for public figures and people who had issues with the law. Today, your phone knows everything and is selling your secrets to marketers, politicians, and anyone who can pay.

Some see this as a virtual class issue:

… as companies start to realise that privacy is becoming a market differentiator for which people will pay a premium, we are seeing “Big Privacy” replace “Big Data” as Big Business’s favourite catchphrase, along with a whole new approach to the monetisation of our personal information – this time in the guise of securing it rather than selling it. Privacy, it seems, is moving from being a basic human right to a zeitgeisty marketing slogan…

Whether it involves driving a car instead of taking the bus, or living in a secluded house rather than a crowded flat, privacy has long been a preserve of the rich. And while we may talk about the democratising nature of the internet, it seems online privacy is also becoming a domain of privilege.

Arwa Mahdawi, “Why digital privacy is only for the rich” at The Guardian

Of course, there are many ways we can protect our privacy on the internet, But here’s the rub: The people most likely to know how to do that are the well-informed. In an information society in the free world, as an information analyst notes, “well-informed” tends to correlate with well-educated (which in turn correlates with being better off):

In the past, technology experts have worried about a “digital divide” between those who could access computers and the internet and those who could not. Households with less access to digital technologies are at a disadvantage in their ability to earn money and accumulate skills.

But, as digital devices proliferate, the divide is no longer just about access. How do people deal with information overload and the plethora of algorithmic decisions that permeate every aspect of their lives?

The savvier users are navigating away from devices and becoming aware about how algorithms affect their lives. Meanwhile, consumers who have less information are relying even more on algorithms to guide their decisions.

Anjana Susarla , “The new digital divide is between people who opt out of algorithms and people who don’t” at The Conversation

At least we have a choice to protect our privacy in principle. Developments abroad are instructive. Invasion of privacy issues are broader than just China’s mass facial recognition system “blanketing the country with CCTV”.

India dodged a blow in 2017 when the Supreme Court ruled against the national government, declaring privacy to be a fundamental right. The government had been collecting biometric data via an “Aadhaar” card,” which many feared would come to include snooping into spending habits (as in China), medical records (as in the United States), and bank transactions (as in Canada). The court treated as a separate question whether the card is constitutional, but it held,

“In an age where information technology governs every aspect of our lives,” the court “has to be sensitive … to the opportunities and dangers posed to liberty in a digital world.” And it called on the government to “put into place a robust regime” for data protection.

Julie McCarthy, “Indian Supreme Court Declares Privacy A Fundamental Right” at NPR

Will India be a rule or an exception here? China is exporting its surveillance technology to African countries as a form of development assistance. Unfortunately, surveillance technology is easier to export and share than Supreme Courts that rule in favor of privacy as a fundamental right.

Further reading on privacy: Your phone knows everything now. And it is selling your secrets

Ad exec quits the industry over big tech’s relentless snooping. He was shocked by the brazen attitude to invasion of privacy


Why you can’t just ask social media to forget you. While we now have a clear picture of the challenges current social media pose to peoples and cultures, what to do is unclear. (Russ White)

Images: The featured image is by Glen Carrie at Unsplash. The “Surveillance” image is by Arvin-Ferry at Unsplash

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Is Data Privacy a Luxury Now?