Can one wish for a dead doorbell, a silent mobile or an empty inbox at least for a day, asks GEETA PADMANABHAN, as she muses over the loss of privacy in today's world

Ashwini sounded frantic. "I wrote down a complaint at a `bargain' store and without thinking, filled the columns for phone number, e-mail and address. Since then I've been getting telemarketing calls. The girls just hummed and hawed when I asked where they got my number from. I'm sure it's from the complaint book. My info is being sold." Ashwini's fears are legitimate. Her number is not listed in the directory. She can't remember leaving it with anyone else except friends. Stay-at-home citizens are the worst hit by this assault on privacy. "I get half a dozen ad calls daily," said retiree Natarajan."From insurance agents, banks and businesses asking me to hock my car. One guy was promoting a pharmacy! How do they know I have a Zen? Or buy a lot of medicines?"

Be wary

"Who is to blame," asked Desikan of Consumer Association of India. "You fill up all those `optional' boxes in an account-opening form. If the transaction is valid without it, why ask for it in the first place? Be wary of parting with personal info." Every time you make a purchase, you give away your address, phone number, credit card info and preference for the product. An all-purpose cut-price store fills its computer with your info before filling your prescription. Companies have been collecting and warehousing such data for ages. So have banks. At the dentist's office, we spit it out even before being drilled. All this is safe, you think. Businesses need to care about consumer confidence. Online? "When you search, chat, shop, subscribe to newsletters, visit a website, buy online (did you book a ticket lately?), apply for a membership or an online course, your privacy fades away," said Sriram, founder president, Launchpad Ventures. "Cookies (embedded without your knowledge or consent) and web bugs read what you read. Browse for thrillers a couple of times, and you'll see an ad banner made for you." Bid online, virtual walls are plastered with your choices. Hundred per cent privacy in an online activity? Don't buy that story.Job-hopping employees exchange info stored in their digital diaries and cell phones. Your mobile phone SP has your particulars. By site-tracking your Internet habits, one can draw your personality map, with flags pinned on the books you read, movies you watch, places you travel to. There is key-logging software that can show what keys you punch and for how long. If you chat regularly, you are a perfect target for telemarketing! Scary! There is the "egocasting" on your blogs: your name, age, profession, what you want, whom you'd like to see the last of ... A police dossier will have much less. It is only a matter of time before a prospective employer trolls your blog to know the "real" you as opposed to the "resume" you. Every morning, you open your inbox (it greets you by name!) to clean up the spam. By evening, you need the broom again. Mails repeatedly ask you to join SMS networks. Neither you nor the people checking you out are anonymous any more. We are all in the public eye.And mobile phones are ringing funeral bells for privacy. If passive smoke is bad, isn't passive conversation worse? Why should I listen to "Conclude it for 14 lakhs, yaar" or "That's not what you said. Why do you change your words now?" or "Are you in town next week?" while taking a walk on the beach? Own a mobile, you are on high alert for the ringtone and SMS, even if it makes you a social moron. Be honest, don't you take your wireless to the bathroom? It may be a great device to stay connected, but there are those who don't want to be bothered. And tech wives will tell you why companies have elaborate food, exercise and entertainment facilities on their multi-acre campuses - "so he doesn't have to come home". Another solitude killer is noise. At midnight you hear cars backing in, to the notes of Vande Mataram. Object, and they ask, "How do you know everyone's asleep?" We equate noise with driving, talking, entertaining. And living, with apartments built within sniffing distance. For all the privacy you have, you could be a billboard on Anna Salai. "It's an open society," said Sriram. "If others have your info, you can get theirs too. It's a borderless world. You can't really say your privacy is invaded." Truth is, your physical, mental and emotional spaces are shrinking. Fewer people recognise your right to your own time, right to do absolutely nothing. You read and react, but don't get time to reflect. A lot of what happens today is a by-product of poor thinking. Wish for a knock-free, honk-free day. A dead doorbell, a silent landline and an exhausted mobile. No chain-mails or "funny" forwards, no online invitations that take years to download. No shrieking TVs. You could use the time to think about privacy issues. And realise the benefits of staying unconnected.SAFETY TIPSUpdate anti-virus software periodically. Reach zonelabs.com for free firewall. Don't give away info on hotel/airlines feedback forms. Have two calling cards - with and without your direct number. Check before you hand out your credit card - is the retailer trustworthy?Never entertain vague calls offering pre-approved loans.

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