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Fixing Tech Privacy Issues With Tech Itself

Technology is scratching even the smallest itches of our ordinary lives, creating new opportunities for economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, education, health care, civic and social engagement. However, as it turns into a fixture in our lives, we are becoming more vulnerable to cyber criminals. Tech giants are racing into the future with artificial intelligence and our data is increasing their pace. In a bid to stay more relevant, we are gradually giving up to technology and jeopardizing our fundamental right to privacy.

As you stare at your screen and scroll through it, your finger and cursor movements may be tracked. This sounds paranoid, but is exactly why we should be aware of where and how we share information with the devices we use. As tech becomes more integrated with our lives, it also becomes more intrusive. Many users fail to understand that it is our right to prevent someone we don’t trust from having power and control over our life and personal data.

Tech can artfully intrude our privacy. Techies master the dark pattern design and  successfully extract the outcomes that they seek from people through the application of manipulative dark arts. From tracking location to tracking online activity through tracking cookies, Google knows it all. Cookies save personal information like addresses, credit card numbers and passwords for websites. Way back in 2011, entrepreneur Peter Sims’ location was disclosed through the God View tool by Uber employees at a launch party. Airbnb’s privacy policy mentions that parts of your public profiles that contain personal information may be shown in other parts of the platform for marketing purposes. So, your photos, reviews and videos that you are asked before being selected for room-sharing deals, may be used for promotional and marketing campaigns. There have been multiple instances like this where consumer data has been misused by the tech giants for data mining and smarter AI.

Companies claim that consumer data will be used only for legitimate business purposes, but what is defined as legitimate is a grey area. Loopholes in privacy policy are used to capture & analyse users’ personal information through connected devices without their permission. Amazon Echo and Google Home can turn into mini spies at home because they can hear, record, store and report sounds they hear. These are used by the respective companies to produce tailored ads and hence, earn more revenue. A recent bug in the Google Home Mini recorded audio without their owner’s consent. Such incidents blow off the lid on the intrusion of technology in our lives and show us its dark side which can potentially steal our identity.

Anti-hackers are weaponizing the same tech to protect sensitive data to circumvent invasion of privacy, because with expanded tools and systems to access data, it is equally important to keep this information secure. They find ways to break into the system like a hacker would and then reverse-engineer solutions to prevent those hackers from being able to do the same. Technology can be used to secure data by leveraging more robust methods of processing, storing and correlating data. It can also help us reclaim some privacy in our digital space. For example, encryption tools can let only the sender and receiver access information. Users can use extensions or add-ons to customize their browser to force connections over the encrypted HTTPS protocol wherever it has been implemented by a website, giving users enhanced privacy while browsing. Some extensions can also be used to block invasive trackers by third-party tracking cookies which are mostly embedded within ads to track our web usage. Secure VPNs can be used to hide IP address. Chip cards make cloning almost impossible and secure payment mechanism. Payments data can also be protected through tokenization which hides and replaces by card number with a token. Special algorithms create token number & make the stored data meaningless to hackers.

We are solely responsible for our presence in the digital world. However, in this hyper-connected world, given the use cases of commercial data and combinations of government and commercial data, we cannot isolate ourselves from it or delete our digital footprint. We need digital guards to protect information from abuse or misuse. The use of anonymizing technology can allow multiple data holders use data and limit abuses. Cryptography techniques like homomorphic encryption when applied appropriately, allow users to send personal data in encrypted form and can also process it in the encrypted form. Only the owner can decrypt data without revealing any personal data to the data processor.

These are emerging technologies that can fend against privacy breach by existing technologies. However, with only a few technologies available as digital safeguards, it is time organisations become more accountable and adopt measures for preserving data integrity and confidentiality. Until then, individuals should be allowed to give and withdraw their consent to data sharing. They should be allowed to withdraw themselves from the clutches of those who invade their privacy. Present technological solutions do not offer foolproof ways to prevent people from oversharing their information. So you, the owner of the information, is the only soldier battling for protecting your privacy.

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