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Privacy at peril?

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THE OTHER SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY Beware, your personal details are going public Photo: A. M. FARUQUI
THE OTHER SIDE OF TECHNOLOGY Beware, your personal details are going public Photo: A. M. FARUQUI

Can one wish for a dead doorbell, silent mobile, honk-free transport or an empty inbox at least for a day? It's time to pause and muse over the loss of privacy in today's world

Hundred per cent privacy in an online activity? Don't buy that story. 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. One said, 'From the phone book.' 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, stopping between serials and sports. "From insurance agents, banks and businesses asking me to hock my car. One guy was promoting a pharmacy!" He is not sure what upsets him more - interruption or information going public. "How do they know I have a Zen? Or buy a lot of medicines?" He fobs them off with, "Since you are offering me money, I'm sure you don't expect me to return it.'" Ha, ha.

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. Said Sriram, "Companies have content-checking software to monitor e-mails, phone calls, voice-mail and web activities of employees."

Filter the spam!

Every morning, you open your inbox 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 lakh, 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. Not the best of times to promote patriotism. For all the privacy you have, you could be a billboard on the Begumpet flyover. "It's an open society," protested 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." And he opens his office door with a remote. 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. Wish for a knock-free, honk-free day. You could use the time to think about privacy issues. And realise the benefits of staying unconnected.GEETA PADMANABHAN

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