• Damisha Salim

It is good if all personal information is online!?!?


Source: https://learn.onemonth.com/dash-vs-monero/cr-magazine-hero-privacy-floor-grey-09-16/

It is good if all personal information is online because people will not be able to conceal anything about themselves anymore.


Consider the above statement. What do you think about it? Would you argue in favor or against it? Let’s try visualizing what would it look like. All the bits and pieces of your personal information, ranging from your mobile number to shopping preferences, from your courses at the university to your debit card number, are floating online, accessible to everyone for viewing, judging, and exploiting. Would you like that to happen? No, right? It is a threat to one’s privacy and an invasion of one’s personal space.


But, let me draw your attention to the considerably assertive nature of the following phrase in the first half of the above statement: all personal information (or at least a great deal of it) is online. Your information “from government and public records, […] and private commercial sources […] when combined with the information you’ve already given on Facebook, through your profile and your clicks,” writes Caitlin Dewey, the digital culture and technology writer for Washington Post, “you end up with what is arguably the most complete consumer profile on earth.” [1] Try running a quick google search for yourself and you, like me, might end up realizing “the impossibility of privacy in the online age,” which, according to Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, is “a critical side effect of the Internet Revolution.” [2]

Source: https://blog.mailfence.com/safeguard-your-privacy-online/

Interesting, however, is the second half of the above statement. Notice that the given statement favors the online availability of all our personal information based on the fact that, with all personal information available online, people will not be able to conceal anything about themselves anymore. Suppose, if my Facebook profile and activity reveal my political inclinations, then it would be difficult for me to hide it or lie about it to my colleagues at the workplace, given that they or someone they know are in my network on Facebook. How is one supposed to conceal matters that people already know of? But, the underlying question here, in my view, is whether it is acceptable, ethical, and, most importantly, healthy to not be able to conceal something about oneself or withhold a particular piece of one’s personal information.


An individual is able to withhold information about certain aspects of their life only when there is at least a minimal degree of distance between them and the others. This distance provides them with an agency and the right to make this important decision about themselves. Moreover, it is also related to the prevalence of mutual respect in society. In his book, In the Swarm, Byun Chul Han, a Korean-born German philosopher, emphasizes the necessity of distance for respect to persist in society. He writes, “respect means ‘to look back” and, therefore, “respectful interaction with others involves refraining from curious staring” and that “respect presupposes a distanced look.”[3]


The importance of distance from others and its connection with respect not only for others but also for oneself is something that we need to understand. In order to recognize something and truly appreciate its value, it is important to look at it from a distance. Therefore, not being able to hide or withhold information about one's activities, preferences, or inclinations signifies a crisis of mutual respect in society. And, a society in which “intimate matters are put on display”, a society without necessary distance, a society without respect, becomes a “society of scandal,” as Hans argues.[4] Moreover, it also points towards the loss of one’s minimum personal agency, a sense of which is not only important for one’s physical and mental health but is also vital for the development of an active sense of responsibility. While having a sense of possessing agency might urge people to act more responsibly, a loss of it may increasingly lead to becoming negligent even about important matters. Also, is it not sensible to hold people accountable for their actions only if they possess some degree of agency to act according to their understanding?


Therefore, whether online or offline, easy accessibility to people’s personal information is neither ethical nor healthy. However, it must be understood that it is largely by means of the internet that it has not only become possible, but also normal to acquire and use information about individuals that is huge in amount and, at times, sensitive in nature. This is primarily due to the online disinhibition effect, which makes us feel less constrained in our activity online as compared to the offline world. This disinhibition effect is experienced by both, those who put up their intimate matters and information online and those who acquire, (mis)use, and even mishandle this information for various purposes.


Finally, let us ask who benefits when a growing amount of personal information is online. It is good for whom if people are not able to withhold information about themselves anymore? In the modern digital economy, which is based upon surveillance capitalism, the business model of various enterprises is to produce “objective and subjective data about individuals and their habitats for the purpose of knowing, controlling, and modifying behavior to produce new varieties of commodification, monetization, and control.”[5] How does Facebook manage to provide you with recommendations about pages and people that you may like, how is it able to bombard you with all those ads, and why does it bombard you with all those ads in the first place? For business. For money. This process is called personal datafication, by means of which all the different aspects of human life are translated into digital data, into a format in which they can be tabulated, analyzed, organized, and, most importantly, efficiently utilized to acquire further information about the masses and then exploit it for making profits in various ways.

Source: https://www.analyticsvidhya.com/blog/2020/11/what-is-big-data-a-quick-introduction-for-analytics-and-data-engineering-beginners/

Now, how does the digital economy manage to acquire more and more personal information? By giving us freedom, a lot of it. In this digital age, we are free to choose and free to reject. We are free to consume from a million products at an online store. We are free to select from a thousand channels on the television. We are free to like and share whatever we wish to on Facebook or Instagram. However, we seldom realize our online activities gradually divulging our information, in bits and pieces here and there. We fail to recognize the politics of personal data, which is crucial for the smooth functioning of the digital economy. We fail to grasp a whole lot of complex social relations, interactions, and struggles for the acquisition of, access to, and control of the data. Data, therefore, is the site of contention and, consequently, action. Busy celebrating our freedom, many of us remain oblivious to this fact. As a result, in various instances, we, ourselves, choose not to withhold personal information or conceal our preferences and behaviors, thus, voluntarily opting out of this struggle on the data that is our very own. Interesting.

[1]Caitlin Dewey, “98 personal data points that Facebook uses to target ads to you,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/08/19/98-personal-data-points-that-facebook-uses-to-target-ads-to-you/?utm_term=.56dce658a755 [2] Elias Aboujaoude, Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality (London & New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011). [3] Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2017), 01. [4] Ibid. [5] Tuukka Lehtiniemi, “Personal Data Spaces: An Intervention in Surveillance Capitalism?” Surveillance and Society 15, no.5 (2017): 628.

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