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The ongoing and enduring issue of privacy

by Josef Kafka

We are, as a species, complicated. The vast majority of us are full of contradictions and juxtapositions: we want to be healthy, yet we crave sugary foods; we want to be able to gain muscle, but we choose TV over the gym; we want to spend our free time productively, but turn to games consoles instead of books.

These are, of course, slight generalisations, but the message rings absolutely true; being a human means we have within us an array of inconsistencies, and this means life is rarely entirely straightforward. This has never been clearer than with the continuing debate over privacy. 

Research in the US has found that people feel they have a ‘lack of control’ when it comes to their private data; 62 per cent believe they wouldn’t be able to go through an entire day without at least one organisation gathering data about them, while even more people (63 per cent) are confident that every single day the government is gathering personal data that can, to some degree or another, be utilised going forward.

What’s more, more than four out of every five people (81 per cent) say that the negatives outweigh the positives when it comes to companies collecting data about them. However, this is the point where we should stop to take a took at those contradictions we mentioned earlier.

Why do such concerns exist?

Many people talk about the fact that they want their data to be private, and that they are opposed to the idea of companies having easy access to shopping habits, for example, but why do such concerns actually exist? Wouldn’t a tailored approach to shopping help? Isn’t it likely that any personalised marketing would save time and make the entire purchasing process more efficient? And, given that we are spending more and more time performing daily tasks online, aren’t we being somewhat contradictory by handing over data and subsequently bemoaning the fact that it is being collected?

There is, of course, an issue that trumps all of these benefits, and it inhabits people’s minds even when it is unlikely for it to occur: hacking. Many people are of the opinion that those with malicious intent will be able to access private information and data and either steal money, gain access to sensitive content, or potentially even begin a campaign of blackmail. 

And, while these problems can generally be avoided easily by refraining from opening suspicious emails, or by only using websites that are trusted and verified, such concerns show no sign of going away any time soon. 

Concerns vs. action

It is clear that there are concerns about data privacy, but what are people doing about it? Are they making decisions to protect their own privacy, or are they just complaining and then continuing as usual? 

A study in 2018 found that trust in Facebook dropped by a staggering 66 per cent in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica debacle, but did this hit user numbers? It would appear not. 

In Q2 of 2018 there were 2,234 million active users across the globe, while in Q2 of 2019 there were 2,414 million, which is a huge increase. So, what does this tell us? Quite simply, it would seem that people are very willing to speak about their displeasure, and incredibly open to discussing the possibility of committing to change, but when it comes to action, there is very little in the way of anything meaningful. It is far easier to make noise than it is to do something proactive.

This disconnect has only become starker in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. There have been numerous incidents of people having concerns over privacy, from websites that are seemingly easy to hack to apps that have been released early because there is a desperate need for haste during this most difficult of times. 

Privacy in the age of coronavirus

It is inevitable that the coronavirus crisis has raised concerns regarding privacy in some quarters. To be able to adequately track the prevalence of the disease, and for normal life to return, it will be necessary for tracking and tracing to be introduced. However, though this approach makes sense, the fact that such data-drive tracing and tracking methods will need to be rolled out quickly means there is, inevitably, going to be room for apps or websites to be manipulated by those with nefarious intent. 

This is something that has already impacted the NHS contact-tracing app which was launched mere days ago. Upon its release, a number of MPs and security experts stated that there was a significant risk that public data could be stolen, which is largely attributed to the fact that the app had to be designed and released so hastily. 

However, in order to end the lockdown and get the economy back up and running, it is absolutely vital that we embrace these approaches. Even if there is some small risk to our privacy, it would appear that there is currently no other way to start the process of getting coronavirus under control than to simply grin and bear it. 

But here lies another interesting study into the human condition; will people refrain from using the app because of fears of data misuse? Will concerns of having private information stolen trump the need to protect the most vulnerable in the country? 

Ultimately, will people choose selfishness over the greater good? The answers to these questions will not be clear for some time, but the debate will undoubtedly rage on in the months and years to come, regardless of the outcome. The ongoing issue of data privacy will not be going away any time soon - if anything, more questions will need to be asked in the coming months and years.






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