Law in the Internet Society

From Right to Information to Real-Time Information: Case Against Convenience

-- By ArjunJoshi - 05 Dec 2019

Scrolling... wait, what?

A month ago, Namrata and I were walking past Hamilton Deli and I expressed my urge to get a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. She said I’ve had too much sugar, and I proceeded to make my case by talking about the fair labour practices of Ben & Jerry’s which even Bernie Sanders acknowledges. I failed and went home. A creature of habit, in the few seconds I had to spend in the elevator, I opened Instagram. In between a picture of a dog trying to bite its tail and another of a football star recovering from his injury, I saw a Ben & Jerry’s advertisement. Had it been any other time, I would have been uncomfortable, but scrolled down nonetheless. But it wasn’t to be. After hearing Jake, who deleted Instagram and Facebook, I decided I should quit too. While I understand that this one-off act does not imply that I am ‘out of sight-out of mind’, but it marked an important step towards educating myself (apart from this course).

In this process, it has been hard for me to situate the gravity of my complicity in the gradual erosion of privacy. It’s truer than I cared to admit, that privacy has not been so much taken from me as surrendered by me. And I, like many, surrendered it for what can seem a mere pittance in return. We give data away to the likes of Facebook and Google, without a second thought and delude ourselves that the surrender of our data is a fair price for the pleasure of chatting with friends, playing inane games, and seeing an endless stream of cat, baby, and travel videos.

What we have failed to appreciate is the true nature of the bargain we have struck with various online platforms. Facebook is a case in point. Though people tend to think of themselves as “customer” of Facebook, we are not strictly speaking their customers at all. We are commodities, the products they sell, not just to commercial advertisers, but to political campaigns, psychological and medical researchers, and a host of others with a vested interest in probing, analyzing and manipulating our behavior, for good or for ill, both online and off. Yet another element is the anthropomorphic transition of Alexa, Siri and Google, which sees their surveillance as benevolence. Their recommendations, of any kind, seems like a bond – as if it knows us and our interests (which of course they know, for reasons unstated).

And of these companies, their endless storage of our quirks, flaws, and very identities feels roughly akin to being cared for as a person. After all, it’s hard to criticise something that not only is so “nice” to us but that has rendered us dependent to the degree that it might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge that very dependence.

In practice, this means that we can no longer expect a meaningful difference between observability and identifiability — if we can be observed, we can be identified. In one recent study, for example, a group of researchers showed that aggregate cellular location data — the records generated by our cellphones as they anonymously interact with nearby cell towers — can identify individuals with 73 percent to 91 percent accuracy.

And even without these advanced methods, finding out who we are and what we like and do has never been easier. Thanks to the trails created by our continuous online activities, it has become nearly impossible to remain anonymous in the digital age.

Apologise for the Inconvenience Caused.

One of the most pernicious long-term side effects of such a culture of mass surveillance is that it tends to change the very fabric of society by turning its individuals into scared little automatons. Knowing that my data could contain a thousand ways of incriminating me, it doesn’t take a Sartre to predict that I will naturally alter how I behave. I’m likely to become less individualistic, less willing to speak my mind, and deathly afraid of challenging the status quo.

Technology abandons the facade of neutrality at precisely the moment that it is employed by people. More specifically, by people in power. Take for instance, China’s social credit system which is a harrowing real time reminder of this very phenomenon in action. Its citizens are subjected to merciless surveillance which has the effect of moulding them into “model citizens” petrified of stepping out of the narrow path of acceptable behaviour. Its creepy hierarchy of citizens and its spectrum of rewards and punishments has the uncanny feel of a dystopian alternate reality.

The truth is, the “but I have nothing to hide!” rationalisation is simply evidence of the truncation of critical thought. It’s a failure of imagination and consequently, we are consenting to putting our privacy up for sale and to laying our bare identities at the feet of those in power to scavenge through and even, to manipulate.

In Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record, he reveals a razor-sharp truth: “The data we generate just by living — or just by letting ourselves be surveilled while living — would enrich private enterprise and impoverish our private existence in equal measure. If government surveillance was having the effect of turning the citizen into a subject, at the mercy of state power, then corporate surveillance was turning the consumer into a product, which corporations sold to other corporations, data brokers, and advertisers.”

In essence, we’re facing a pretty severe power imbalance. Our right to privacy is hardly acknowledged. The new normal has become transparency of our private selves, an exchange we didn’t really know we were making. Government officials and corporate executives alike ferret out the loopholes in the Constitution or just brazenly steamroll over them.

Power is timelessly seductive. And presently, the power is piled at the very top. Technology has been a great benefactor of society, but if it’s a tool that can be used for positive aims, it can just as well be utilized for negative ones. Technology can be a tremendous weapon depending on who holds it in their hands. The only way to ensure that the full powers of technology are not abused is to wrest it from those that have wrongfully acquired our digital DNA. The consequences are too dire.

What the draft needs most is focus. Starting from ice cream is a surprisingly frequent trope in Columbia Law School student essays, in my experience, but it pays off infrequently. This draft lurches away from ice cream in Harlem to the Modi government's detailed trifling with the Indian right to information system, to the Indian version of the global problem of state ambitions to decrypt and analyze their entire society's "social media," to the Chinese social credit system. The overall point is clear: "we're facing a pretty severe power imbalance." But that wasn't much of an advance on where we were at the outset.

Rewriting should begin from the center. What is your important idea here? State it clearly and briefly at the top. Show where it comes from, how you support it, so you can then show the reader where it leads you. Make all the joints tight, so you can carry the reader along with you from sentence to sentence. You want to convince, which requires clarity above all.

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r3 - 17 Jan 2020 - 20:13:34 - ArjunJoshi
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