I remember the front doors to my house in India being mostly open (this was 25 years ago). Streams of people entered and left at all times of the day. Neighbors, vegetable vendors, family friends and second cousins. I remember the questions asked of me by curious acquaintances who had little in common with me other than a slight connection to someone with a less slight connection to me. How much do you earn? When are you getting married? How much do you pay in rent? How old are you? I answered the questions reluctantly but truthfully. I knew that any equivocation would result in sharpened interest, heightened probing and more than likely mistaken conclusions.
After my relocation to the United States, I adjusted comfortably to the shelters of seclusion, privacy and independence. Then Facebook and Google became verbs of social exchange and everything I had learned about privacy was reset to previously familiar levels.
Stephane Leman-Langlois, in his book “Technocrime: Policing and Surveillance” says that “… privacy, or the information that constitutes it, has been transformed into an exchangeable currency.”
We know that is true. With Google’s free Gmail service, advertisements are sent to us based on keywords in our private emails and Facebook’s deployment of timeline and private message links is well established. Even while Mark Zuckerberg was explaining updated security options in December last year, it became clear that privacy default settings on Facebook were a bundle of loose protection parameters, best designed to exploit our friends lists—the powerful currency of privacy in a public domain.
The remarkable innovation of companies like Google and Facebook rests on the convincing idea that people will give up privacy for something else they cannot do without. Hence apps like Spotify and Instagram have irresistible “allow” buttons.
Yet, I find myself suspicious of any persuasion by these social sites to “monetize” my privacy; use my privacy as their capital. The problem, as I see it, is primarily a lack of control. We are free to subscribe to these social sites just as we are free to leave the doors to our homes wide open. But how much are we willing to give up, without conscious awareness, for the seduction of connection and community?
I’ve come to accept that in order to stay “linked in” we do have to open ourselves to technologies. The question to ask is where do we draw the “Lakshman-Rekha?” Can we allow people and surreptitious programs the right to collect information? Or do we really have nothing to hide?