A Piece of My Mind: The perils of privacy

Facebook has allowed massive distribution of the personal data of its users! Hackers have stolen personal information about customers from retailers and banks! Privacy is under threat!

New European regulations will stifle the growth of social media companies! Regulation will stifle entrepreneurial development of new digital consumer products! Free enterprise is under threat!

Political and commercial groups are spreading fake news based on user history they can get from social media! Trolls are targeting political figures and celebrities without fear or liability! Trust in the news media is under threat!

Exhausted by all of the above? Looking for some clarity? Two contrasting articles in an end-of-year issue of The Economist both discussed the potential impact of the rapid accumulation of personal data. One was written by Ludwig Siegele, the British technology editor of The Economist; the other was written by the Chinese CEO of Sinovation Ventures, Kai-Fu Lee.

Siegele wrote mostly about the complexity of any law attempting to limit access to the data automatically collected in our increasingly digital world. He showed some of the hazards inherent in keeping information out of circulation – for example, if traffic management officials are forbidden to collect data available from modern cars to understand traffic patterns, or if health officials are denied information about where infectious diseases have surfaced. His basic premise, however, is clear – privacy is an important individual right, and must be taken into account as the digital world expands. It’s scary out there.

Lee’s point of view was quite different. He looks forward with enthusiasm to a world where “online merges with offline,” and data from “sensors in cars, stores, malls, clinics and schools” will enable those with access to “know and track each person’s behavior,” where they went and, by inference, what they did. He expects “a future where we will reap great financial benefits and enjoy unprecedented convenience.” And, as an afterthought, he mentions that “we also need to find ways to protect people’s privacy in this brave new world.”

I once asked a Chinese friend what the Chinese word for “privacy” was. He concentrated with furrowed brow for several moments, and finally told me, “There really isn’t a word that corresponds to the Western idea. In China, people don’t spend much time alone. There are always family, neighbors, colleagues – ‘private’ has a negative connotation, more like your word ‘antisocial.’”

How much simpler the digital future would be if we weren’t hung up on this “privacy” thing. Yet somehow, I don’t want to give it up, even for instantaneous banking payments and faster pizza delivery. How about you?

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