Online privacy – what does it matter?!

Hackers are getting smarter by the hour and companies are constantly fighting them off trying to be at least half a step ahead of them. Yet, there is another group that we should be equally wary of – these companies themselves. The data they are trying to protect is yours and mine, of millions or sometimes billions of users sent over to their server farms to break down and monetize. The shock is real when you hear about hackers getting away with huge dumps of data. But can there be an alternate scenario where the data is not there at all to be taken?

The data we let these companies have is a price we pay for their supposedly free services. For every instance of navigation help on google maps, you are letting Google know where you are right now and where you will be later. Okay, in reality, they know where you are all the fucking time. Sometimes I wonder, like so many others, is it really okay to let an engineer with enough clearances be able to look me up any time? Am I overreacting when I think that I am but one of millions of blips on a huge display at Google? Am I really? For all the convenience and connectedness, is this price a tad too steep? Google is the leviathan it is now because for years it has had access to its users’ data. In a way, it is a child of the world. Without us, it wouldn’t be. However, services like Google maps and the search engine itself are so unique and so powerful, even Microsoft, a company that’s been around far longer than Google found it and still finds it difficult to mount a sustained offense. Comparing Google to Bing is like, how do I put it; imagine a beautiful entrée at a restaurant you really love – that’s Google. Now imagine some leftovers of the same entrée sitting in your fridge for the past two days. You don’t even want to eat it anymore – that’s Bing. Unappetizing and dull-looking. Harsh, I know, but that’s what it is. What’s that? Duckduckgo? No.

We are at an inflection point in terms of how technology is going to change our lives. With internet in every electrical appliance in our homes, we are literally going to hand over our living lives to these companies. Right now it all seems quite innocuous, but is it always going to be? Okay, I’ll admit, IoT is an entirely different game altogether. For the sake of sanity, let’s stick to online privacy for now.

As the gig economy phenomenon clarifies itself more and more, we are being posed a real and profound question. Does it make sense to actually pay money to get these services that we now use for free? Of course, there are great people out there doing fantastic work without asking for money. But let’s be honest – most people want to get paid for their work, because you know, they have to eat and stuff. When I see a notification on my phone about this movie I have booked for today evening, saying I need to go now to avoid traffic snarls, I don’t know how I feel. I am fully aware Google is able to do this by ‘reading’ my mails, for the lack of a less anthropomorphic term. Why do I not feel outraged that my personal matters are being pored over with such impunity? Fine, it is probably accounted for somewhere in those T&Cs no one reads. But what the hell.

Privacy protectionists swear by encryption, a technique that has been around for hundreds of years, rather famously employed during the Second World War by the Germans. There are two sorts of encryption – symmetric and asymmetric. In symmetric encryption, the data is scrambled and a key is attached along with and both are sent over. Although the data is relatively secure from hackers, the data is available for the service provider to look at and use. WhatsApp was using this technology for a long time until this year in March they decided to ditch it for stronger security for its users in the face of very real privacy concerns. In asymmetric encryption, there are two keys, one public and one private. The public key is available to the sender, the receiver, the messaging service and anyone else who decides to get naughty. But the second key is never sent over the internet and a unique key is generated for each session, so there is potentially zero possibility of it being taken wrongfully. At least that’s the popular belief.

But surely, there has got to be a backdoor to crack this kind of encryption. Do not sit there and tell me that these companies are genuinely on the users’ side. I don’t buy it at all. Remember that brouhaha about Facebook inserting an option in WhatsApp which let them use the user data for their ads and the user had to find that option and uncheck it? I’m particularly skeptic about Zuckerberg’s products. He is just too young and ambitious to really care about genuine user enrichment. At some point, he is going to put the WhatsApp data to work, or start charging for the service. By way of sheer human nature, charging money for the service is only going to make the user switch to a different but similar service. Or will they stay? That is the question I’m asking. Are we ready to pay for our favored services when we are so used to having them for free?

Finally, in the scenario of a government trying to pry open a consumer product to look into the data for different purposes (see Apple vs FBI), there really isn’t much a user can hope for. Your data is going to be looked at and you are entirely powerless to prevent it. But till the time you are not in the middle of such a drastic crisis, you might want to think about how you want your data handled.

What now?

There are many people and startups that are willing and determined to go down the I-don’t-want-to-share-my-data road. Their model does not depend on advertisements at all – instead they have the users pay for the products. These companies, like Protonmail (still in beta) are at the vanguard of this new online privacy drive. But these are far and few between. For want of decent alternatives, we will continue paying for ‘free’ services with our valuable data. Right now, the free model is so successful and everybody is so happy, there is no real incentive to move towards a no-ad model. Everyone needs a push. Maybe when I tire of incessant mindless ad targeting and long for the privacy I so value in real life online, I will start to look for simpler and more honest products and services. Till that time, I guess I’ll stay comfortably numb.