Right to Privacy? You must be kidding!

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Post NSA snooping episode, the invasion of privacy by governments has emerged as big ‘talking point’. People who consider privacy as the basic human right have raised alarm over human rights being eroded by the biggest champion of human rights – the USA. But surprisingly it has remained just – well  – a ‘talking point’. No big ripples, no mass protests that one would have expected, have shaken the world.

Why? I try to answer this in this post.

Privacy is the choice to keep our affairs to ourselves. Inside my home whatever I do should be nobody else’s business. As long as I am not interfering with anybody’s affairs, I should be left to manage my own. Concept of privacy should not be confused with that of confidentiality which means ‘ensuring that information is accessible only to those authorized to have access”. Privacy is choice to not share personal information whereas confidentiality is applicable on the personal information which has been shared with a party like a bank etc.

The most basic choices are called needs: food, shelter and clothing. There are lot of people in the developing nations that are not in a position to exercise even these basic choices.

Privacy is a choice that comes much higher and the financial status allows one to exercise this choice in a more assertive way. But even financial status doesn’t guarantee it.

So a person, who has to find food in a bin, cannot complain of lack of privacy. In India people have to take bath in the open due to lack of water supply to their homes. They cannot complain of lack of privacy either. There are people, even females, who have to relieve themselves in the open because of lack of toilets. Of course privacy is almost a non issue for them although they try their best not to offend anyone.

But somehow no one seems to bother. We won’t be able to recognize someone who daily searches for food in a nearby bin.  This may be because this has become congruent to our eyes.

But if someone from a well to do family is asked to search food in a bin, he will not be to do this without feeling that every eye is watching him. He might be right too because the sight will be quite in-congruent. But if the same person suspects that a important document has mistakenly reached that bin he will be prepared to ignore the eyes and search the bin.

My point is that we tend to compromise on privacy in case of urgency and that in an urgent situation we don’t mind doing things for which we ideally seek privacy. Eating, sleeping, relieving, talking on phone, reading…..etc.

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But urgency depends to a great extent on the financial status of a person. It may also depend on some demographic and cultural factors. For example age can be a strong factor influencing the sense of urgency. Health can also be a strong factor. In fact high degree of repeated urgency is addiction. And an addict hardly cares for privacy except for evading law.

Thus, if I can create a sense of urgency for someone I can access his privacy. And depending on my intentions I may or may not misuse this access.

Today one very important aspect is security against terrorism. 9/11 catastrophe resulted in a huge sense of urgency. People in the US started feeling a sense of vulnerability that was unknown to them. In fact the message that went out to the entire world was that “if this can happen to the US it can happen to anyone”

Thus on the one hand terrorism has troubled the governments across the world, on the other it has given them a tool to create a sense of urgency through which they can force the common man to compromise on his privacy. For example installation of CCTV cameras is a direct invasion into the privacy but people don’t object because security comes first.

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Even confidentiality can be breached in the name of security. What if the transactions are being done by some terrorist?

Thus every online transaction we make can be a potential source of breach of privacy. It’s not only the government that is interested. It is the corporate that is equally interested in what we are interested in. And all this is not a secret at all. Still we are vulnerable.

Of course we can safeguard our privacy and confidentiality by not using net banking, not booking tickets online, not shopping online, not having video conferencing….etc.

“Are you nuts?” you would ask me. This is because the modern times have created some more urgency. Or dare I say addiction.

An urge which has become urgent: to consume more and more. So we actually don’t mind, when where and how, who is watching us doing what. Whatever!

I think all this at least partially explains why the world didn’t stop after the NSA snooping episode.

Thanks for your time. You might have an opinion quite different from mine. Your feedback is extremely valuable.

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