Don't like being watched? Keep technology at arm's length

Peter Kammerer says faced with ever more hi-tech devices that infringe on our privacy, turning them off may be our only sane choice

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 11:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 February, 2015, 8:29pm

Traffic on the flyover passing my office window has an unobstructed view of all inside. Several times I've answered my phone to be informed that I've just been observed picking my nose. Working late after dark, lit up like a showroom dummy, I'm only too aware of my privacy. But that's not the worst of it: technology means that everything I say and do, regardless of where I am, is potentially being noted by someone, somewhere.

It's a sobering thought for those of us who value freedom, the right to an identity and alone time. Together they amount to privacy, which is essential for self-development. Take it away and our behaviour changes to the point that we act and think differently. Georgetown University law professor Julie E. Cohen put it best in a Harvard Law Review article: The less attention society pays to privacy and surveillance, the less fulfilled and happy it will be.

Yet we have been only too eager to embrace mobile devices and apps that let others know where we are and what we are doing. Internet search engines and cookies on our computers pass on our online activities to others for commercial and perhaps even private use.

With social media, we take it a step further by offering up slices of our personal life for all in our circle to see. It's not always done with our knowledge, but often, it is done willingly.

We don't mind security cameras in lifts, lobbies and on the street: where safety is involved, there are no quibbles. Yet, like the internet and mobile phones, the information they provide is available to government agencies, police and whoever else has authority. Whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations about the National Security Agency showed how intrusive and far-reaching surveillance can be. But the uproar has died down and the number of ways to infringe on personal freedoms and liberties is on the rise.

Shoes are available that contain GPS tracking devices; they are aimed at people with dementia and children, but the technology is adaptable to other items. Reading University cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick went a step further by suggesting that a microchip implanted under the skin of an arm would offer 24-hour protection. Jealous types have apps available that they can secretly put on mobile devices to enable them to check on their partners.

I'm as guilty. Worried about my fragile mother, I've bought her mobile and wireless phones and a button to wear around her neck that she can press in an emergency. They are as much about safety as for my peace of mind, in theory giving me the ability to contact her at any place and time. But she won't co-operate, rarely turning on the phones and refusing to use the button, protesting that she needs her privacy.

She's right: eroding privacy chips away at liveability. Excessive monitoring curtails thoughts, actions and emotions. There's no fun in knowing that you're always being watched, that everything from your music playlist in the cloud to your calorie intake is accessible by those with a password or hacking skills.

Until governments and private firms can guarantee the right protections, a Luddite's approach to technology should be adopted. It's as easy as drawing the curtains when working late.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post