My Take
PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 March, 2013, 3:31am

Let's profit from inevitable loss of privacy


Alex Lo is a senior writer at the South China Morning Post. He writes editorials and the daily “My Take” column on page 2. He also edits the weekly science and technology page in Sunday Morning Post.

Privacy protection is a losing battle. Anonymity is increasingly difficult in the era of big data and mobile computing. That's why I think our privacy commissioner and his counterparts overseas are becoming obsolete. Allan Chiang Yam-wang makes a valiant defence of personal data, in particular our ID card numbers, in the letters page today. But given time, we will all be open books, our personal particulars digitally available to those who have the power or money to check them.

We may think we lead private lives. But whether democratic or authoritarian, governments and well-funded companies with large databases already know a great deal about us. In countries with the most technologically advanced companies, large personal databases have become sources of profit. Facebook, Google and Amazon know far more about you than maybe your nearest and dearest. When such databases exist, they will eventually be used.

Google has been fined US$7 million for "snooping" the personal e-mails, passwords and browsing histories of people in the US via Wi-fi during its Street View mapping project between 2008 and 2010. It blamed a rogue engineer for the "mistake". Yeah, right! But it's not just Google. Companies and governments that have the resources all do it.

Privacy will eventually become a thing of the past. We made a Faustian bargain when the whole world jumped on the internet bandwagon. Now it's too late to go back. We should embrace the inevitable. But why should we let companies make money from our data and governments control our lives?

We should be able to trade our personal data, rather than being exploited. Let's develop copyright regimes where they will have to pay us to use our personal data. Individuals' data may not be worth much, but how about forming groups of, say, frequent travellers, moviegoers, readers, cosmetics users, disease sufferers and pornographers, so large data can be collected and sold en masse? Let's monetise our likes and dislikes.

Correction: The US, not Iran, is the only country on record to have admitted launching a cyberattack against another country, that is, Iran. The mistake in my column yesterday was introduced during subediting.


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