Blowing Water

Big Brother is everywhere, shut him out by not freely sharing your personal data

Those who advocate sacrificing personal privacy for the greater good are leading us down a very slippery slope, writes Luisa Tam

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 April, 2018, 8:57pm

How often do you give out your personal data just to get a discount, free access to Wi-fi or other retail benefits? Like I said in my last column, many of us have unknowingly surrendered our individual information on a regular basis for the sake of convenience or for some instant rewards.

Privacy is like our health; when we have it we take it for granted but once we’ve lost it, we regret having neglected it in the first place. Most of the time, health can gradually be regained by recuperating and taking better care of our body, but unfortunately privacy is slightly different because once it is lost it cannot be reclaimed.

Like my Chinese family, those who say privacy is merely a Western concept couldn’t be more wrong. It is an indispensable personal right, without which there is no genuine freedom of expression and association. The level of privacy granted to individuals is a true reflection of what kind of a society we live in.

People who advocate sacrificing personal privacy for the greater good, such as monitoring individual movements and sanctioning personal behaviours, are leading us down a very slippery slope.

And those who churn out the seemingly righteous defence that “if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear” are deliberately misframing the debate to shift the onus onto individuals to prove their innocence or trustworthiness. 

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It is irrelevant whether you have something to hide or not, what you do in your private space and time is your business and you shouldn’t be subject to scrutiny or judgment. But unfortunately this principle is fast eroding as the world has become increasingly inclined to collectivism in the name of transparency.

Not long ago, I watched a spine-chilling episode of British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror about a world in the not too distant future where people can rate one another from one to five stars for every interaction they have; this includes something as simple as buying your morning coffee.

These scores are extended beyond the confines of social media though, as one’s score has an effect on not only their social standing, but their entire socioeconomic status and effectively, the quality of their entire life.

The storyline might sound ominous and far-fetched, but China is planning to experiment with an ambitious social credit system in which every citizen will be awarded a score to rank their social status. 

Under the plan, every move of every citizen would be evaluated and scored. You could lose points by jumping a red light, defaulting on credit card payments, failing to take care of elderly relatives, paying your bills late and so on. But it also advocates trust across society by punishing those for offering or accepting bribes, or producing or selling phoney and harmful products. It also goes without saying that points would be awarded for good citizenship.

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China wants to manage its citizens’ private lives to maintain public order. It might be a well-intended concept to build a culture of honesty and harmony across society by imposing the principle that if trust was abused in one place, privileges would be denied in others. Alternatively, it might even cause you to lose your daily freedom by being subject to constant supervision and restrictions. 

Some might argue that there could be benefits under the proposed system, but the bigger concerns are: what will be lost and what is the real cost? There is always a price to pay and an ideal future should not be one that is achieved by systematically controlling people’s behaviour.

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In fact, we already have similar systems to restrict us from acting out of line in everyday life. For example, there is a demerit point system for driving violations. And we have a well-constructed legal system to regulate conduct in society and various legal punishments to deter criminal activities.

There are different ways to deal with different human behaviours and there is no one-size-fits-all system to monitor and discipline the population. Having such a rigid social credit system is no different from putting the entire population in a prison. 

Moreover, who can guarantee that those who control the credit system won’t tamper with it to harm others or gain personal advantage? Simply put, who polices those who police us?

Governments and organisations are all leveraging the power of big data to do whatever they want. It’s happening because we allow them to do so by living a big chunk of our lives online and connected. We allow them to vacuum up our data so that they can monitor, regulate, dictate and manipulate how we live every day.

Just imagine if one day your score can dictate your ultimate social worth such as whether you can buy a house, get your children into a school of your choice, who you can marry or whether you are fit to bear children. Just one tap of your personal profile, and your score could nosedive with your entire life ruined.

Big Brother is everywhere; stop over-sharing your personal information. Shut your door of privacy and don’t let people barge in and make demands against your will.

Luisa Tam is a senior editor at the Post