Privacy: The critical dimension

Lauren Jackson conducted an interview with Shoshana Zuboff– the author of the celebrated book- The Surveillance Capitalism. While much of Shoshana writes is alarmist and is rooted in the historical perspectives of the US, the crux of her argument is flawed data leads to erroneous results that raise red flags for racial diversity. While reading the book, I couldn’t decide what she was arguing against – flawed data or the outcomes. However, it raises a fever pitch against the unbridled reach of the corporations that have amassed data and new insights that are envy of the government. It ranges from their sleeping patterns/financial spends and algorithmic targeting of attention spans for advertisements. They capture sounds surreptitiously private conversations between individuals, families, and dissect sentiments. They track health to “partner” with insurance companies.

The book had broken ground to explain the idea to the public and had been a handful of publications backed by advertising glitz that brought privacy in the mainstream. However, as I have mentioned here repeatedly, privacy is a nuanced debate. There are several trade-offs in decision-making that isn’t binary. For example, discussing the privacy implications of WhatsApp, my colleagues may be sympathetic to my concerns, but there is immense friction involved in due deliberation to shift to another alternative. This boils down to network-effects.

Hence, under the cover of the pandemic, the corporations have increased their overreach and become the “de-facto” medium for “exchange. For example, Google Meet/Microsoft Teams and other enterprise products which had poor uptake, has witnessed flurry of uptakes. Zoom, an also-ran video-conferencing solution, reached the centre-stage, despite reservations about its Chinese owner as he is likely to be compelled to keep data in an autocratic state. These aspersions aside, it has increased the scope of mass surveillance. Recorded streams are a treasure trove to understand (and train models) for “holograms” (for example); especially related to facial expressions and body postures and understand heirarchial relationships.

Here’s an interesting question:

How do you feel about the regulatory possibilities that are emerging at this moment?
I feel great about it. What the E.U. is doing is really taking us to the frontier of the regulatory effort, and I think of it as really something that we have to achieve in this decade or in the third decade of the digital century.
Over the years, you know, we’ve kind of had to flinch a little bit when we watched our elected officials interrogating the tech executives because they seemed so outmatched. Well, those tables really have turned. And in March, what we saw for the first time was congresspeople that really have grasped the economic model here and the unaccountable power that has accrued to these companies. And for the first time, we heard them saying we understand this information is a byproduct of your economics. And this is going to end and we’re going to end it.

The regulatory stand-offs globally, are going to be a matter of concern. In the EU, clamps of free flow of digital information, has ironically stymied the growth of start-ups and hence they are looking for other places. UK, through its massive consolidation of medical records, will become a global hot-spot for the “research” and possibly, as means for the regulatory framework. EU is stuck in a time warp who have failed to understand how technology moves. The ideas behind the “right to forget” are laudable, but current efforts are more in line with ensuring roadblocks for US based companies, rather than proposing alternate options for end-users. UK’s NHS consolidation for population health records is an interesting experiment likely to usher them in a knowledge-based economy.

The regulatory frameworks shouldn’t stymie the progressive “march of technology” while keeping the privacy intact. There are several use case scenarios which can be envisioned to benefit end-users. However, as I have repeatedly cautioned, hype shouldn’t overpromise and under-deliver.

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