Privacy is dead, but who cares?

SINGAPORE - Remember the good old days when the only threat to your privacy was a nosy parent or sibling breaking into your room and reading your diary, assuming you kept one?

These days, those mom-and-pop operations are positively small potatoes.

Now you can hardly open a newspaper without reading about some government or large corporation going through your e-mail, phone calls and Facebook pictures.

A few years back, everybody was upset about Facebook and how it kept changing its privacy settings although that certainly did not stop anyone from posting vacation photos online.

Then, after everyone sort of got comfortable with the idea of Facebook knowing everything about them, along came Edward Snowden with some leaked documents about how the Uniited States National Security Agency was monitoring the private communications of US citizens.

People got really excited about that story too, especially the bits where Snowden kept playing hide-and-seek with journalists before deciding to hang out for weeks in an airport.

Then, just as news broke that Snowden was finally leaving the airport, we get a story this week about a Google court filing that anyone sending an e-mail to a Gmail user has no "reasonable expectation" that their communications are confidential.

Take it all together and one cannot help but get the impression that nearly nothing we type into a computer or a phone is private these days.

There is now proof, incontrovertible evidence that we are being spied on by companies, governments and possibly some random individuals with a lot of free time on their hands.

This violation of a basic human right is outrageous and egregious and you know that any moment now there will be a fierce and concerted movement of angry people fighting to reclaim our privacy, just you wait.

I'm telling you it will happen any minute now.

Are you still waiting?

Okay, maybe I overstated the outrage people feel about this. I mean, when it comes down to it, how important is privacy to our generation anyway?

I tend to find that many people, myself included, are paying attention to stories about the invasion of privacy because, on some intellectual level, we are uncomfortable with the idea that there is some large unseen organisation going through our stuff.

Yet, on an emotional level, we find it quite easy to completely ignore these things.

The spying is invisible and does not really impinge on our day-to-day lives in any way and, let's face it, a lot of us kind of assume we were being watched already.

It is similar to the way I assume that if I check my bag in for a flight, someone will rifle through my underwear the moment it slides down the chute looking for weapons or something valuable to steal.

I am able not to think about this because it all happens out of sight. Also, I pity anyone who has to rifle through my underwear.

There was a fairly telling poll conducted by Washingtonbased magazine National Journal shortly before the whole Edward Snowden saga broke.

It found that 85 per cent of Americans assumed that their e-mail, phone calls and Internet history were available to businesses, the government and other groups without prior consent.

I don't find this surprising at all. I have reached the stage where I don't even bother trying to ask the telemarketer interrupting my dinner how he got my number and how he knows my name.

I just assume that it is all out there somewhere in a database that people can buy for not a whole lot of money.

I think the world has successfully sort of worn down our privacy instincts.

On a daily basis, I now happily click on many little buttons that say I agree to allow some app made by some company I've never heard of to access my personal details on Facebook.

And I know giving up privacy is now very much a part of our everyday lives.

We walk on streets and take elevators and ride in cabs monitored by security cameras on our way to work where we log on to computers that record every website we visit.

We then go for lunch where we take a picture of a meal and upload it, with description and location, to Facebook before checking in on Foursquare so that your friends will know where you are and robbers will know it is safe to go to your house.

Next thing you know, we are going to get people wearing little head-mounted cameras like Google Glass, recording what you say to them and how many times you pick your nose in a 10-minute conversation.

The new Xbox and a new Motorola phone boast always-on features which allow you to turn on the devices by just talking to them. That sounds cool until you realise that in order for it to do that it needs to be listening to you all the time.

I think of all this and I ask myself: "Shouldn't I be more worried?"

I posed this question to a friend as well and his response was simply to remind me that my life is so completely boring that even if one person manages to collect all my electronic communication, he would be bored out of his mind going through it.

It's almost better to just rifle through underwear.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg


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