But we never wanted it anyway, muses Adrian Tan.
Over the past few weeks, our inboxes were bombarded by emails about privacy. Companies wrote to us, in a state of panic, because of the General Data Protection Regulation. That is a new European Union law that came into force on 25 May 2018. Among the many things that the GDPR does is to regulate the export of personal data outside the EU. It changes how organisations in Europe should handle personal information of their customers (and their customers’ customers). It is a big deal; if organisations run afoul of the GPDR, they may be fined millions of euros.
What happened next was predictable: many companies, in an effort to over-protect themselves, flooded their customers’ inboxes with email requests to renew their consent to receive marketing material. Those requests came in many forms, but they were often packaged in the shape of caring messages from businesses wanting to proffer helpful information and cajoling us to say “yes”. They also took the opportunity to swear that they would guard our privacy with their lives.
A Western concept?
But I want to focus on our reaction to those emails. If social media is anything to go by, we were irritated and indifferent in equal measure. We hardly summoned up the energy to delete, let alone read, them. Our eyes collectively glazed over – and our fingers collectively swiped over – those emails.
Why did we respond that way? A big law was passed, about something supposedly very important and personal to us. We ought to have paid more attention and acted more swiftly, to understand and protect our personal information.
Perhaps Asians are less culturally predisposed towards privacy.
Let’s examine this concept of privacy. Privacy is the ability to protect personal information from the rest of society. The shipwrecked sailor, on a desert island, would have no need for privacy. The need for privacy arises only when – and because – we live within a society. That is the heart of the issue: privacy is anti-social. It is the very essence of individualism, the ability to thumb one’s nose to society and say: butt out, leave me alone, let me be.
Maybe, to Asians, privacy is a Western idea. Its roots lie in Aristotle, who drew a distinction between public life and private life. Privacy sits well with Western ideas celebrating individual rights, and enshrining personal freedom and identity. The individual trumps the group.
Traditional Asian culture, on the other hand, focuses on building communities and organising society. It is all about the obligations that individuals owe to society, but not vice versa. We are big on duty and sacrifice, but not so much on liberty and rights. The group trumps the individual. There is nothing in the Vedas, or in the Analects of Confucius, that deals with the quaint, modern, foreign concept of privacy.
So our families want to poke and probe into our deepest private lives – we have to accept that. So the state wants to surveil us by placing cameras all over the country – okay. So countries block social media and censor words on the Internet – ho hum.
Take my personal data, please
Of course, if asked, we will insist that privacy is very important to us. If we are told that companies are collecting our personal data, we will claim to be offended. If we read reports of governments listening in on telephone conversations, or snooping in our email inboxes, or intercepting our messages, we feign shock.
Yet, after the obligatory period of outrage is over, it will be business as usual. We will continue to display our personal information on the World Wide Web, where it can be viewed, searched and stored by every living person, as well as those yet to be born, for posterity. We are well aware that every service offered on social media is geared towards extracting data from us and then selling it. After all, when a service is free, we are the product. When we refuse to cough up a dollar a month for a subscription, we are essentially trading our personal information for that dollar.
We have read stories about identity theft. Still, we hesitate not in offering up our faces, our birthdates and our addresses to those nameless corporations. Not only that, we happily present the personal data of even our friends and family. We post their photographs, tag them, identify them, and in so doing we disclose their personal data online, all without their consent. That is because we know, like us, that they wouldn’t mind either.
And it is not just in cyberspace. Because we are enticed by the discount voucher from a shopping mall lucky draw, or because we hanker after a shoe shop’s VIP points, we willingly disclose our personal data – our birthdates, our home addresses, our identity card numbers. Who is collecting all this information? Where are they storing it? What will they do with it? Can they be trusted? Even if they can be trusted, are their systems safe from hacking? We don’t know and we don’t care. We are willing to sell our birthright for a chance to win a holiday in Bali.
If we really cared, we would refrain from distributing our personal data wholesale to every retailer or app that we install. We would rigorously delete our browsing histories, routinely change our passwords and vigorously upgrade our firewalls. But we don’t. We even use public wifi.
That is because, deep down, we don’t value our privacy as much as we declare. We give up our secrets, and consider that to be a small price to pay for all that convenience, entertainment and social connection. Perhaps we ought to care more. Perhaps one day we will care more. But for the moment, our actions speak louder than words. Our personal information is up for sale and we are perfectly fine with it.
So let’s stop pretending otherwise.
The truth becomes clear when we take a step backwards and look at the big picture. We name periods in human history after the one thing that was exploited the most during that period: the Stone Age, the Age of Sail, the Machine Age, the Space Age. They don’t call this era the Privacy Age. They call it the Information Age. And it is our information they are talking about.