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BW Businessworld

Life After Privacy

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Here’s a scary thought. over the next two to three years, we’ll have a generation that doesn’t quite understand what you mean by “privacy”.  Is it what you get when you’re in the bath? No, maybe not, because your smart shower will be watching and will tell you when you’ve used enough water. The shower will signal the smart soap dispenser to power down. The water stopping will get the smart rack to extend a towel. A moment later the towel back on the rack will tell the smart lights to dim low so that you can wind up. Take too long and maybe the smart door will unlock so you get yourself out of there quick — if you’re smart, that is. As you get dressed, Google, will buzz you to tell you you’d better leave for your meeting now… or else.

Will there be any private spaces left? And will we even want them?

I just met an acquaintance who was telling me how he no longer uses Google as his default search engine because he didn’t want it knowing everything he searched for and browsed. Actually he might as well log out of his Google account, opting out of Gmail, another enormous repository of information on each user. But Google is not the only company that has intimate information on its users. Everyone does. Every website, every app, most social networks and messengers, and an increasing number of connected gadgets. Earlier this month at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas, a huge number of devices were showcased that involve intimate knowledge of a user. While these new gadgets, most of them part of the Internet of Things and wearables space that is thought to be the next big wave in technology, have interesting capabilities, they also have the ability of knowing something about users. For now, how all that data will impact privacy has been put in the deal-with-it-later tray.

There’s an entire Do-Not-Track movement to safeguard user privacy, working towards standards that companies would have to comply with. But while privacy is easier to ensure for businesses, it’s not so simple when it comes to personal data. In fact, as techniques for gathering and analysing data mature, the year ahead is going to see a battle for information among companies and other stakeholders.

Opting out of Google or Facebook and using browser plug-ins might seem like they’re significant measures, but with new categories of connected devices, users are more willing to trade off that privacy for new features. How is your smartwatch to notify you of a flight delay unless Google Now, or someone, knows what your tickets say in your email? You can choose to remain in the dark ages of technology only up to a point. You’ll eventually need devices for something or the other and wil be drawn into the net. I still know a few stragglers who don’t want government agencies to know their mobile numbers. But this will no longer be a “violation” and it will just be plain inconvenience to not give it out. While users elsewhere are prickly about their privacy, users in India don’t typically see the big deal. Governments everywhere are snooping and policing citizens online but still there’s the blasé complacency that there’s “nothing to hide”. Plus, how many things do you opt out of? Every piece of technology we use today details its privacy policy in small print, mostly incomprehensible and in any case far too much trouble.

When you add the social dimension to this scenario, that’s another layer of privacy gone. Users are not only getting used to it but reveling in displaying the most personal information in the most public forums. Husbands and wives now need to validate their love for one another on Facebook, for some reason. Many parents have decided the best way to say happy birthday to their child is best done on everyone’s newsfeed.

While we take the disappearance of privacy in our stride, it’s best to consider the dangers of over-sharing on social media. But the bigger danger is how companies and governments are going to shape our experiences based on the data they have.
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 09-02-2015)