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June 15, 2017 - Comments Off on Data Protection & Privacy in the Digital Age – Part 1: “You Are Being Watched”

Data Protection & Privacy in the Digital Age – Part 1: “You Are Being Watched”

It’s a regular, blazing hot day in sun-scorched Lahore. You might be in the mood for a cocktail, so you call up a local restaurant, asking for their timings and menu. Later in the day, when you're scrolling through Facebook on your mobile, you notice advertisements of the very same place being shoved in your face not-so-subtly, with the blue thumbs up button urging you to “like” the page and subscribe to the restaurant’s updates.

Some of us might find these targeted ads convenient, but many others find them intrusive and even disturbing. Whether you are shopping, eating out, socializing or browsing the internet, you are being monitored and filed through the digital traces produced by your life. Data collection has become synonymous in the age of digital consumerism. It’s at work when you purchase an item from some random shop which then targets you with dozens of SMS. Ever wonder how businesses you have never even heard of solicit you? It’s because your data is being sold for exorbitant prices to marketers who then spam you with advertisements for everything from clothes to mattresses. Behind the complex algorithms powering your favourite apps and websites lies a humongous database of personal information and meta-data that paints a complete portrait of your social identity. Your silent stalkers are none other than the very institutions that form  a part of your daily lives. From local businesses to multinational corporations, from boutiques to your mobile network, and from NADRA to FIA, your personal information is increasingly in the hands of giant corporations and government agencies which operate without any legal oversight or safeguards for data collection and transmission.

Re-thinking your choice of a cool summer drink?

You’re not alone.

We live in what cyber space specialists call the “Golden Age of Surveillance.” As our lives become increasingly digitalized, our privacy is proportionally threatened by the onslaught of data-hungry marketers and companies interested in snooping on our behavioural preferences. Businesses want to know everything about our spending habits so we can open our wallets to them more often. Everything from why we shop, what we buy and how much we spend is information that is priceless to marketers. Remarkably, we might just be helping data collectors unwillingly. We all know people who feel the need to document their personal lives on social media, from uploading albums of pictures on Facebook to snapping the latest dish from the hottest restaurant in town. Some of us might be to blame for oversharing as well. And it’s not just businesses. Fingerprint identification and SIM card registration might be useful for anti-terrorism efforts, but it’s also a privacy nightmare for regular citizens. Not all of us realize that with or without our consent, our lives are being tracked and gathered in a massive database of personal information by companies and government agencies.

But what can we do about it?

Data protection laws might help. Such laws empower data subjects such as you and I with the ability to control the collection of our personal information, equalize our position against powerful data-mining corporations and authorities, and prevent discriminatory and abusive usage. Data protections include restrictions on data transmission and retention, limitations against intrusions of personal information and offenses for violators. The importance of such legal safeguards goes beyond our concerns for privacy: according to reports by the United Nations, even the perception of surveillance by government agencies produces a chilling effect on citizens, who censor themselves out of fear. Political dissenters, journalists, activists and whistleblowers might pay a greater price for acting in the public interest in the absence of protective mechanisms. Data protection laws help foster a democratic environment which encourages, rather than stifles, the free exchange of ideas and discourses. Increasing reliance on such laws in the international sphere means that there are economic advantages for data privacy legislation. Pakistan is unfortunately among the 60 countries in the world which completely lacks such data protection legislation. Our nearest competitor, India, for example, is in the process of enacting comprehensive data protection legislation to secure economic co-operation with the European Union, whose laws demand partner countries to adopt such protections for commercial interests.

In short, data protection laws are severely needed to protect our social, economic and political interests, and thus our very lives.

Author: Ashtar Haideri

Published by: Digital Rights Foundation in Blog

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