Privacy is a complex topic.
It’s a buzzword among tech reporters. A dead concept according to private investigator Steve Rambam. A bunch of PPTs skimmed off Google by Data Protection Officers. A double-edged sword for UI/UX designers. A myth in Indian homes. My biggest personal truth yet.
Nothing can make you dig deep into the subject like a punch-in-the-gut experience of losing it. With privacy also comes the need to understand security better. The two aren’t the same. I’ve conflated these two concepts in the past so I hope this series helps you draw distinction and recognise everyday situations better.
The culture you identify yourself with influences your notions of privacy and how you experience it. The consequences are substantial; right from policy making, cross-cultural communication to designing software products. A compelling case on how culture affects what we value was put forth by the Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede.
As per his study, Germans display more aversion to risk. This could explain why your German friend questions the safety of online transactions. (Understanding a friend or customer’s cultural leanings tells you what archetypes you can expect of them.) However, take the collectivist society of Japan where group rights are held high above individual rights, there’s a tendency to disregard privacy. In fact, they don’t attach any importance to the concept of the self. In stark contrast, the United States values individual rights and freedom, which means they admire risk takers. Privacy in the U.S is seen as a direct responsibility of individuals, private sectors and web sites rather than strict rules and regulations from the government.
Another important aspect that decides how we regard privacy is our perception of human nature. If many of us think humans are inherently evil, then our society becomes one with low trust. For many, religion instructs if humans are good or evil by nature.
Next is population density. In cultures like the one I was brought up, it’s totally okay if my neighbour volunteers to collect postcards addressed to me in my absence without getting my explicit permission to do so. It’s interpreted as being a friendly neighbour. The lines around being my neighbour and friend blur as most Indians live in close proximity to each other.
You might also find this interesting: Understanding Values, Morals and Ethics.
In today’s day and age, Hofstede’s observations go obsolete since culture itself is going through a metamorphosis with the advent of the internet and social media. The more we’re engaged with our devices and apps, the more we tend to behave in ways to fulfil their goals, making privacy an imaginary concept.
Certain behaviours are being built into products whose equivalents in the physical world would seem creepy. Recently, there was a vulnerability discovered in Zoom— a web conferencing software, that let any bad actors on the web enable your web camera without your explicit permission. A couple of days earlier, an e-mail provider called Superhuman exposed location details of those who opened emails with the help of tracking pixels. This worrying trend raises many important questions on how human behaviour has been manipulated by technology and if those in power deliberate these decisions or regard them as after thoughts.
Should chat products encourage employee surveillance through online and offline/ in and out statuses?
How would digital novices stay aware of cookies, pixels and harmful scripts?
Should social media companies allow people to create multiple profiles from the same IP address and device?
How has the internet influenced the way we behave in the physical world?
What are the etiquettes from GDPR that can be applied to human relationships? (Okay, so the last one is like saying what wet roads tell us about rain clouds. I’ll save it for another day.)
In my upcoming posts, I’ll be sharing my opinions on privacy and security in the context of the real and the virtual world that’ll answer some of the above questions.
These are self-imposed writing assignments meant as a way of teaching myself to form opinions on these important topics and in no way indicate my expertise. So feel free to disagree.