Saturday, May 17, 2014

Paranoia in the time of connectivity

Did you know that someone built an app that upon feeling the change in pressure on your seat will update your Twitter status and tell the world that you have just passed wind? Or that there is a Pimple Popper app, which — as the name suggests — is all about squeezing those big, fat, ripe for the picking whiteheads. Technology has truly given us some game changers.

But, regardless of our chosen apps, those smart devices that we hold in our pockets — or handbags, each to their own — leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs and hold data (pictures, correspondence and contact details) that we hold dear.

Thus, the recent move by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to attempt to secure the right to search phones without a warrant (Wired, March 23, 2014) brings the topic of privacy — and paranoia — to the fore. In a world where we are happy to share our inner-most thoughts, location and family photos with the world — albeit on our own terms — how far away are we from just plugging in to the computer mainframe and allowing all and sundry access to everything we make, think, do and want?

Many people in Indonesia have more than one mobile device, in fact over 60 million cell phones were purchased in Indonesia in 2013 and the vast majority of those over 15 years of age, roughly 160 million people, will own at least one cell phone. Walk down any street, inside any mall, sit at any Transjakarta stop in Jakarta and you will see people adding to their “want list” or “liking” or “checking in”, or otherwise obediently obeying some other cleverly thought up marketing ploy encouraging users to part with their information.

Forget George Orwell’s oppressive Big Brother’s looking down on society from huge telescreens, we are freely surrendering our civil liberties with every click that we make.

But how would those people react if a police officer was well within their right to walk up to them and take their phones “into custody” because they didn’t like the way they looked or the political party they supported or the ethnic group that they belonged to?

Because in spite of millions of us offering our information like sacrificial lambs to the gods of technology in the hope that they will grant us more likes or followers, authorities around the world still have the ability — and often, right — to snoop on the common people and dictate what content is “suitable” to access on the Internet. And now, with the application to freely search cell phones, they want more.

Now, I am not na├»ve, in fact I had previously taken it as an unspoken truth that whatever you do on your cell phone is not secret, something that many cheating spouses learn to their own detriment, and that all anyone need do to uncover sensitive information — like your score on Candy Crush, the content of the last dirty email you sent to your partner or your latest plans for world domination — is query some database, somewhere, or just — old-school — search through the cell phone, covertly, of course.

We seem to be traveling toward the obliteration of privacy through our own willing relinquishment and the forced surrender by the state, in the name of “protection”. We all play into this tapestry of paranoia as both suspects and victims, ensuring the paranoia machine keeps ticking.

Attempts at creating safe and secure digital spaces, such as the deep web (also known by other, just as flattering, monikers such as the dark Internet) have been infiltrated by those living less-than legal lifestyles, who opt use the platforms to circumvent the preying eyes of “the man”, their mum or whoever. Thus, the attempt to engage secure browsing through the deep web is looked upon with suspicious eyes. And so, I fear, will be those activists that stand up against this most recent invasion of privacy.

On the one hand, I support the notion that the police need these rights to “take down” criminals, however, it is the potential for this type of legislation to be misused that I object to. In the case of a raid on a building, which without permission constitutes trespassing, the police must have a warrant. As cell phones and smart devices have grown to play such an integral part in our day-to-day lives I would posit that they too are a piece of personal property, thus, any attempt to access them must be taken seriously, by the authorities and the users themselves.

But, then, am I just being old fashioned? Is it just a 20th-century mind-set that makes me think that I can retain an ounce of privacy in my digital life in the 21st century? After all if people are happy to tell Twitter when they have just passed wind, what difference does it make if the police wield the power to look at the contents of your phone? After all, the breadcrumbs we drop behind can be used to map our comings and goings without the need for a police warrant.

I remember when the biggest threat to other people accessing my personal correspondence was the postman reading the back of my postcards. How times change.

H L Bentley, Jakarta

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