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Science communication is important in today's technologically advanced society. A good part of the adult community is not science saavy and lacks the background to make sense of rapidly changing technology. My blog attempts to help by publishing articles of general interest in an easy to read and understand format without using mathematics. I also give free lectures in community events - you can arrange these by writing to me.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Future of Privacy - What is Privacy and Why it is Important? (Part 1)

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Privacy is an emotive topic and in these days of 'connected people', any mention of privacy draws strong reactions - and not without good reason.   Over the last three decades, accelerating technological advances have transformed the way we interact with fellow humans. Data flow, hence information flow, has increased beyond expectations.  Humans have always adapted to new situations but it takes time - may be a decade or more which is too slow to cope with the current rate of increase in information flow.  This has created strains between different generations.  Moral and ethical values are no longer a given but each individual struggles to find his/her own codes - many a times, not very well.  The confusion leads to behavioural problems and affects the cohesion in our societies. Naturally, with weaker societal benchmarks, emphasis has shifted to individualism - looking after self. This has created its own paradoxical situation because individualism conflicts with the erosion of privacy that accompanies with the tide of information flow.

Before going further, I would like to understand what one means by Privacy.  
I like the punchy statement - Privacy is the right to be left alone. 
Oxford Dictionary (OD) - Privacy is freedom from intrusion or public attention; avoidance of publicity. 
UN Declaration of Human Rights says:  No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor or reputation.  Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
All very 20th Century!  
I find protection of law part ironic.  Law has traditionally only protected the rich and as we shall see in my forthcoming publication about the 'Future of Law' the situation is only going to get much worse for the common man.  

The concept of Privacy has changed over time and is being continually redefined.  In older societies when people lived in small communities, everybody in the village knew everything about all others.  Houses were small and combined families were common. OD definition of 'freedom from intrusion or public attention' just does not hold for ancient societies. Cities and crowded places, paradoxically, gave people more scope to be their own where everybody is too busy to worry about fellow beings and some sort of privacy (OD style) was possible.  
In the modern context, Privacy sets a goal of what is desirable but seldom achievable.  The goal is laudable as freedom from intrusion brings its own benefits - one can feel relaxed and happy and could possibly be more original and creative.  Having said this - I think some of the greatest contributions in art, music, literature, science... were made by people who were unhappy and stressed.  Such are the complexities of the human mind!

What does the public think about the threat they feel from different organisations? - the slide shows the result of a recent survey: (Click on slide to see bigger image)
Something really interesting is apparent from the survey. Less than 3% people surveyed feel that they have trust in their government to keep data about them secure. Private business is trusted far more.  This is totally understandable and we shall have a lot more to say about this in Part 3.

Let us first look at the reasons why Privacy is considered important.  As we shall see later, rapid advances in technology will result in a wholesale redefinition of Privacy. Even now, some people, mostly government security czars, dismiss Privacy as unimportant for people who have nothing to hide.  
Daniel Solove has explained why Privacy matters.  Let us look at some of his reasons:
a.  Personal Data:  The more someone knows about us, the more power they can have over us. It can be used to affect our reputation, influence our decisions, shape our behaviour. It can be a tool to exercise control over us.
b.  Privacy enables people to manage their reputation: How we are judged by others affects our opportunities, friendships and overall well-being. Even after knowing the truth, people judge badly, they judge in haste, they judge out of context, they judge without hearing the whole story, and they judge with hypocrisy.  Privacy helps people protect themselves.
c.  Privacy helps people to establish appropriate social boundaries from others in society  
d.  Privacy ensures trust in relationships:  In professional relationships, e.g. with doctors, lawyers.., trust is key.  Trust broken in one relationship makes it more difficult to establish trust in new relationships.
e.  Privacy is key to freedom of thought - be it exploring ideas outside the mainstream, ideas that family and friends dislike, or political activity.
f.  Privacy nurtures the ability to Change and have Second Chances without being shackled by past mistakes - allows people to reinvent themselves
g.  Privacy matters because one does not have to explain or justify oneself all the time - It can be a heavy burden if we constantly have to wonder how everything we do will be perceived by others who might lack complete knowledge and/or understanding 

Of course, absolute privacy is also undesirable - that will be isolation from the society.  Humans are gregarious by nature, they love company and readily talk to others about personal matters.  The act of living in a society requires surrender of some of your privacy voluntarily and most people are comfortable with this but as the survey has indicated they  are also concerned that our institutions - companies and governments - do not have the ability/means/willingness to keep their private data secure.  We shall look at this in more detail in Part 3. 

The reason Privacy is a 'hot' topic just now is the latent ways in which peoples' privacy is compromised and they appear to have no control on it.  New advances in digital and nano technologies allow effective collection and manipulation of personal information.  Private information given in good faith at one place can be combined with other information about you to generate undesirable loss of privacy that you had never agreed to.  In fact it might be fair to say that with digital information flow, privacy may be impossible to defend.  We shall look at the question of physical and digital privacy in Part 2.

A development in technology that is hailed as the new paradigm is the arrival of the Internet of Things (IoT).  This promises to deliver a connected world. Implications of IoT for Privacy are far-reaching and somewhat frightening - particularly in terms of lack of security and making people more vulnerable to cyber crimes. We shall look at this in Part 4.  

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