Imagine having your browsing history shown to your mother, or your screenshots of your private chats sent to your boss at work, or having your bank account details known by that friend you were avoiding for a long time. When it comes to the term ‘privacy’ most of us think about our activities on the internet. It is quite an intelligible line of thought because in the 21st century we like to check our phones almost as often and as we all blink, and if there are phones and computer devices involved there’s most certainly internet being used. But is a breach of privacy just about the internet and having our private information shared or viewed by unauthorized third parties? Is privacy actually an illusion in this modern world.

What is privacy?

It is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively. Therefore it’s not just the information that one chooses to give out about themselves virtually or in real-time to real people but also their right to make certain choices about their private lives. It includes an individual’s right to be let alone, has control or access over their private information, has moral ownership of their own body, and not have their personal space intruded.

Breach of privacy

Everything is available on the internet – from naming suggestions for babies to scholarly articles on quantum physics. But so is our data. As of 2019, there are nearly 2.23 billion monthly active users on Facebook, 1.5 billion on WhatsApp, 1 billion on Instagram, 335 million on Twitter, and these are just the popular social networking sites! There are popular applications like Uber cabs, Ola cabs, Paytm, PayPal,  Amazon, Flipkart, and mobile apps used by banks for net-banking that use our personal data. Even online games require players to give personal details – something that many kids and even unsuspecting adults have fallen prey to. If one goes online they can easily find more than a dozen cases of a data breach in just the last two decades.

For instance, in 2013 a group of hackers had compromised the accounts of nearly 1 billion users on Yahoo which included their names, dates of birth, email addresses, and passwords that were not well protected. Security questions and answers were also compromised. In October of 2017, Yahoo revised that estimate, saying that in reality all 3 billion user accounts had been compromised.

The online auction giant, eBay reported a cyber-attack in May 2014 saying that it exposed names, addresses, dates of birth, and encrypted passwords of all of its 145 million users. More recently, the personal information of 57 million Uber users and 600,000 drivers were exposed in 2016. Then there is the infamous Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal which was a major political scandal in early 2018 when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook users’ profiles without their consent and used it for political advertising purposes.

How private is our private life?

Data breaches have gained widespread attention as businesses of all sizes are becoming increasingly reliant on digital data and with sensitive business data stored on local machines, on enterprise databases, and on cloud servers, breaching a company’s data has become as simple – or as complex – as gaining access to restricted networks.

However, a data breach is not a scandalous misdemeanor only committed by social networking giants. One can forage around the internet and find more such instances and the increasing number of cases leaving multitudes affected is shocking but we have to understand that our privacy is not only breached on the virtual platform. 

A person’s whereabouts can be detected using the Global Positioning System, telephones can be tapped, and closed conversations on social media can be read by third parties. Though these actions are mostly performed for security reasons by the police or government, many times innocent people fall prey to these. For instance, ignoble people use these tracking devices and techniques to stalk others who are gullible and off-guard.

In reality, when a woman is denied the right to choose whether or not she wants to abort her child, that is a breach of privacy. When someone shares intimate details of another person’s private life, which is actually revenge porn, it is a breach of privacy. Not being allowed to make a decision regarding one’s own life, is a breach of privacy.  When a person is judged on the basis of their sexual orientation, it is a breach of privacy. Something as simple as peeping into your neighbor’s house without their knowledge or consent is a breach of privacy.

Is privacy an illusion?

We make our private life public the moment we choose to go on the internet and socialize with strangers. When we share a picture or video or any information then whether it is viewed by a handful of known trustworthy faces or by an array of unfamiliar netizens, it is still archived on the internet for eternity, stored away in some deep and dark corner of this web from where it can be retrieved with or without our consent – because the internet is, after all, a creation of humans, therefore, any number of ‘privacy’ and ‘security’ codes can be overwritten by hackers or the very people who created them making privacy an illusion for all. Even if your social media handle is set to ‘private’ mode and even if you have only ‘close friends’ as your followers, this is still a small world – you may not run into Beyoncé but your information can still be viewed or obtained by strangers who are acquaintances of the people in your circle.   

A child today will grow with no concept of privacy because when they look around themselves they will find nothing but people drowning in hashtags, likes, followers, and other social media statistics. They will never know what it means to have a private moment of unrecorded and unanalyzed thought because starting from their moment of birth, to their names, first smiles, first cries, first words – everything will be documented in some way or another – and that is what they will learn to accept as the norm. Even though it’s good to have moments captured in photographs for revisiting on a particularly nostalgia-filled day, it is not necessary to let the world know what bread one was having at which restaurant, with whom and at what time of the day.

Privacy on the internet is like an oxymoron. It is dead and social media holds the gun but the privacy of our lives offline is also threatened because we are losing the concept of maintaining our mystery when it is necessary. It is very clear from all the cases of breach of privacy that despite all the security measures taken privacy is an illusion and we are to blame. From gossiping about one classmate to another to sharing relationship status online, it is the people, more often than not, who compromise their own security by being unmindful. The number of threats and hackers will multiply but so should our vigilance because, privacy matters. It allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be. Internet is a platform; let it not become a way of life and our privacy, not an illusion.

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