Column: Online Privacy – Fixing the Wrong Problem

This summer, I received a phone call from an employee at my bank. The chap on the other end asked if I recently had bought a number of kitchen and bathroom appliances in California. Which I hadn’t. My credit card data had been snatched by someone who had embarked on a frenzy of costly purchases. Luckily, the surveillance systems of my bank spotted a pattern of transactions typical for credit card fraud, alerted me promptly, suggesting an immediate card freeze and also notifying me that none of the US purchases would be charged to my account.

I was of course, grateful. It was a prime example of automatic big data surveillance and analysis at work to keep me safe.

I never left Europe this year, and during the days of the short US-shopping spree with my card data, I personally stayed put in a small countryside village, mostly using my card at local cafés. The data trail of my purchases clearly showed this behaviour to the bank security team.

My bank knows where I shop, what I buy and uses that information to protect me. The slightly uneasing knowledge that the bank can monitor my patterns of consumption and movements seems after all, as a decent trade-off for my financial safety.

However, the banks are of course not alone.

In our society similar types of control are now ubiquitous. Employers can trail our movements on the web and follow our e-mail correspondence. Telecom corporations know who and where we call. Social media giants know our interests and tastes, and use this information to serve us the most effective, individually tailored ads and offers. And ever so friendly Google has developed a system of keyword scanning of our emails, to profile the users and offer what is labeled a ”better service”.

Bearing this in mind, the recent media uproar about government surveillance, although founded on reasonable concern, sometimes still appear a little overblown. Yes, government must of course be regulated not to invade our privacy and not to keep track of its citizens without consent. And yes, the September hearings in the European Parliament on mass surveillance and international NSA movements are very welcome indeed.

But a far bigger threat lurks in the realms of less accountable private corporations and social media bodies.

These organisations also hover discreetly over the protective regulatory measures that the authorities in democratic states at least have ambitions to implement. What the private entities know about us however, remains their secret, since this is knowledge often critical to their business models.

In order to keep our trust and commitment, commercial enterprises and social media of course also claim to show the deepest respect to our privacy. They assure us that they want to be our friends, servants and providers of apt services – for one or two pennies, that is.

But in the long run, this runs in contradiction to their own survival instincts – to mine as much data as possible about our behaviour to stay ahead of their competition and make profits.

It´s 2013, but still, our fears over privacy infringements still seem to trace the dystopia of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984: The state as a totalitarian, claustrophobic system watching and controlling our every move.

As the digital society evolves, the digital trails of our lives will be more accessible to organisations with different goals than the state. And we do constantly give up our data willfully and rather incautiously to all sorts of service providers, and subsequently to third party developers, in reward for instant convenience, smooth service and safety.

That is in itself a cause for concern. And when smaller, shadier and hungrier unsolicited organisations get a chance step in to connect the dots of our lives and act with even less concern of anything else than their own interests – then things have all the prerequisites to get a lot more ugly.

PS: Personally, this autumn, I look forward to the release of the Ubisoft video game “Watch Dogs”, where I get to play Aidan Pearce, in a quest to revenge the adversaries of his family, in an urban setting where he moves under constant and hostile digital surveillance.

Paul Frigyes
Journalist, covering issues on new and traditional media