Loss of Privacy – Utopian or Dystopian World?

This write-up was triggered by a recent article in the National Geographic magazine on “Big Brother and Surveillance society, et al”. Central question of the article is…is it a necessary evil, the new Orwellian world that may in fact be good for society (unlike George O’s bleak and frightening outlook) and where and how do we draw the line on its boundaries. In the backdrop of yet another devastating mass shooting in the US (the Parkland Florida School shooting) coupled with my own frequent travels to the US (mostly by road and sometimes by air) over the last 8-10 years, I have often reflected on these questions. No right or wrong answers but here’s some of my thoughts and experiences.

One common theory coming from gun owners in the US relates to how they need to protect themselves and their families and society from an overzealous and authoritarian Government that may want to take away their freedoms. In the context of the NG article (24×7 omnipresent surveillance), this surmise does have an interesting yet unintended linkage (I will not get into the gun-control debate in too much detail but will use it as a side piece of information to this bigger idea of ‘big brother watching you all the time’ and its implications). The NG article details how governments in the UK, US and other countries are gradually embracing intrusive surveillance technologies to keep a constant watch on everything going on, especially in cities, vulnerable because of their population densities.

In the words of the article’s authors “Our visual constellation is replete with adorable babies, kittens and elephants-but also ISIS beheadings, double speaking politicians, graphic details about celebrity lives, etc. Meanwhile, we’re seen, up close and far too personally by airport-security screeners, smart billboards that tailor their ads to us based on our appearance (& beyond!) and everyone who knows everyone who caught us on camera on a day when we could swear we were alone. Whether this all adds up to a more enlightened society, an over stimulated one, or a little bit of both is hard to say. ATM’s around the planet stare back at their customers, tens of thousands of cameras hover over roadways-tracking traffic violators as well as normal drivers and their comings and goings, appliances inside houses recording our likes and dislikes, cameras everywhere on streets and subways and theaters recording billions of images of people and storing them in databases over which we have no control. Then there are the drones and satellites watching us from above, clicking images of our blocks where we live, 24×7. Our smartphones, our internet searches and social media accounts are giving away our secrets”1…and so on it goes. When the 2nd Amendment (of US Constitution) enthusiasts talk passionately about defending their freedoms via guns, are they able to comprehend the scale of what they are up against (if at all a rogue govt. were to come after them!) and how utterly ridiculous their idea about being able to defend those rights, is?

Anyways, going into the implications of omnipresent surveillance, there is this perennial argument between privacy advocates and advocates of a more well surveilled society that is essential to keep society and its people safe. Where is the limit and what are or should be the boundaries? In reality, my point of view is, given the ubiquitous nature of our social media interactions coupled with the ever present tools everywhere looking at us and tracking us almost every moment of our lives, we better get used to this new reality instead of losing sleep over it. Yes, maybe if we are in an autocratic state like Saudi Arabia or North Korea or Russia, the state might harm us if it perceives something otherwise harmless and decide to act against us, but in a free democratic society, should we really be going nuts about lack of privacy (and to be honest, can we realistically do anything against it, I doubt…). During the last 10+ years I have crossed the border (between Canada and the US) several times and have often thought about these issues of privacy and intrusive physical searches. Most of my trips were for pleasure (either for photography of National Parks and cities of the US or to catch up with friends). The initial trips did elicit extensive questioning and sometimes, rude remarks from the CBP (Customs & Border Patrol) officers, but then as I travelled more and more those questions became less intrusive and less demeaning. Which I think, was quite rational. Except the few times later on when the officers suddenly decided to put me through extensive questioning about my trips down south and all of them, on hindsight, were justified. There was the time when after a particularly long day at work on a Friday and lack of any rest afterwards, I decided to go on one of my photo trips to a beautiful State park in the US and I had to cross the border at Detroit (or Buffalo, I can’t remember now) around 2-3 am in the morning, to be able to reach my location around sunrise time (the best times for landscape photography). I was tired and mumbled and fumbled in the initial couple of questions from the Border official and immediately he got suspicious and relayed it to his team inside the building. I was told to wheel in my car into a garage sized Xray machine and then asked to accompany an officer to the building where I was questioned a bit more about my destination, profession, etc.,…all done very politely, firmly and professionally. Every nook and corner of my car was scanned in that big machine and after finding no trace of drugs or any objectionable material in it and convinced by my explanations, I was finally let go. Now…in such a situation it’s very easy to get angry and frustrated (yes I missed my coveted sunrise timing to be at the location) but as I drove out of there and onwards, I kept thinking, what if I was really a criminal and was doing something illegal? That is what those border personnel are supposed to protect their country against. So yes, the search was intrusive and long, but my behavior certainly raised some flags and they reacted to it, that’s all. They were just doing their duty. Isn’t it a small price to pay (the lateness or the questions etc.) for the security that they are trying to guarantee to their citizens? Same goes for the pat downs at airports. Have had those quite a few times. Yes it was awkward but luckily (unlike some on youtube videos and news reports about how horrible they are) I never felt that way, or maybe I had conditioned my mind to tolerate it so it didn’t feel awkward and to their credit, the screeners did do the entire process with as much respect as they could (call it my luck or my insensitivity, whatever).

We have to remember, while we do loose our privacy in the bigger scheme of things (as the article points out… “What’s worrisome is that if all of us at an individual level suffer from loss of privacy, society as a whole may realize its value only after we’ve lost it for good”), of late the value of these state surveillance tools has also come out forcefully. As the same article goes on to say…the Boston Marathon bomber was pinpointed and captured precisely through these trail of CCTV cameras. Poachers in Kenya’s Wildlife parks are tracked down and caught using thermal imaging cameras at night, depletion of the amazon rainforests is tracked via a network of tiny satellites and agencies can take steps in real time to slow or stop it, and many more examples. Imagine if CCTV cameras were as ubiquitous in earlier times as they are now…wouldn’t they have helped a great deal in cracking cases about Jack the Ripper, Lee Harvey Oswald or O.J Simpson? The big question is, how big of a sacrifice (in terms of mindset) are we willing to make in terms of loss of privacy to remain safe. A question that will have different answers for different people.

And here’s my final perspective and view…cities and towns (and borders checkpoints that lead to these cities) with complex layouts and vulnerabilities regarding providing security to their inhabitants should employ all the technologies to keep the people safe even if it means we are under non-stop surveillance and privacy goes for a toss. But once we are out of the city and choose to be in the great outdoors, as in the stunning National Parks, among the wilds, the onus of privacy and how much we want to reveal about where we are and what we do…should be on us (via our social media feeds and phones etc). If we choose to relay to the world, that should be our choice, if we want to go dark for a few hours or days, so be it. In short, in the ever-growing world of constant unceasing visibility (knowingly and unknowingly), we do need those oases of privacy as well, to be able to sit back and reflect and think. Because there’s a difference between the loss of privacy due to our constant connectivity vs the loss of privacy due to a State’s self proclaimed duty to keep itself safe and secure that often involves unseen tools of watching over us all. Is one better than the other, probably a wrong question to ask…they each have their roles in their own spheres. It’s when those two intersect that things can get complicated and genuine concerns arise. Like for example (again from the same NG article) when the State through its surveillance tools, determines a person has a school going daughter who goes to a particular local store and that little girl gets a suggestion on her facebook feed about deals and promos going on in that particular store. That then goes into completely another territory altogether, the nexus between govt. and corporates, the implications and how far is too far. That is perhaps a scenario where we need to ponder over, debate and question…

References: 1. “They are watching you” – National Geographic Magazine article (Feb, 2018) by Robert Draper

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