Privacy is a currency

We barter personal privacy for predominantly two benefits — convenience and security. Convenience is provided by commercial corporations whereas security is promised by the country where we live in.

In the pre-digital era, we would discover services and goods via the means of advertisements, word of mouth, or just by happenstance. It was very much a broadcast system, more often not tailored for individual preferences. In the digital era, we exchange our privacy for the convenience of personalised discovery. Many such digital services are free and trade purely in the currency that is our privacy.

The data we share with these institutes is not just the hard facts — like our location, contact details, our social graph — but also our behavioural and intellectual preferences.

Facebook can customize its news feed based on our personal choices in events, politics, science or brands (content we ‘like’ and ‘share’). If we let Google track browsing behaviour, it can personalize search results for us. The more we tell Amazon about our shopping choice and reading habits, the better its recommendation engines get. The more we exchange our privacy, the more convenience we get from various service providers who can tailor their services to our personal preferences.

More often than not, these corporations are in the business of advertisements and are capable of crunching all this data themselves. Other smaller corporations collect and sell our data either as a commodity or as a service. In many cases, we receive free, no-cost services from these corporations as long as we share our data with them.

In terms of security, the sharing of our privacy has much more complicated effects — not just in terms of commercial benefits, but equally the socio-political aspects of our life.

Unfortunate events in our recent past have caused us to be increasingly more fearful. This fear coupled with rise of technology has lead to many unintended side effects.

National security and protection from ‘spray and pray’ terror attacks have taken importance. Mass surveillance is seen as necessary. We are willingly giving all our data to governmental agencies in the hope that they are capable of finding the needle in the haystack.

In pre-digital era, we paid money from our income in exchange for convenience and services. We paid for security to our governments in terms of tax, another form of real money. In digital era, we pay for convenience and security by the means of sharing our privacy.

Privacy has become the new currency. Unlike traditional money, we have unlimited supply of privacy. We can share our location data with many services and products at the same time and still not run out of it. This creates the problem of not keeping a tab on where, when, and with whom we share our privacy. We receive no centralised monthly “Your privacy statement”.

Digital content that we create, share and expose online is not just a supplement to our life; our living has turned digital. Just like money and banks, we give our privacy to various institutions — often without realising — for safekeeping. However, once our privacy is compromised, we can not trace it, collect it back. It is gone, forever.

We cannot perceive privacy, and systems that use privacy as a currency take advantage of it. We rarely — if at all — read End User Licence Agreements; we rarely ever worry about the permissions that we give for myriad of digital services that we consume.

No commercial institutions have any incentive to protect our privacy. Unless privacy turns up as a slide in board meetings and quarterly earning statements, it will remain an afterthought. Privacy theft, lousy safe-keeping practices, and inherent flaws with digital systems aren’t too promising. The core components of Internet and other communication systems have been infiltrated by criminals and states alike. These actors have capabilities that allow them to eavesdrop, tamper and modify our data even before we give explicit permission.

Upcoming new technologies like driverless transportation, collective human intelligence, and AI all rely on us sharing our most intimate digital footprint with more and more corporations. Our current national security systems rely on running mass surveillance.We are in need of a de-centralised, public owned system that carefully barters our privacy for convenience. Until then, we are the only ones who can control our privacy. There is no doubt that privacy will be the currency of the future — it is already becoming one.

{My thanks to many friends who helped me in structuring this way better than how I had written in earlier versions}