Quite a few years ago, I was sitting in the audience of a panel discussion in a PR agency’s swanky loft-like office in Soho, London. The topic for discussion was wearable technologies.
Amongst the panel were the normal selection of representatives from companies who are creating wearable tech, companies that were at the intersection of health and technology and a TV journalist with a reputation for being at the cutting edge of tech.
It was a fairly run of the mill conversation, covering things like why wearable tech will be a big thing, how this company was aiming to change the world etc, but then we got data privacy.
This is where it suddenly became rather interesting for me.
Who Cares About My Diet?
The TV journalist (whom I shall call “Sally”) talked about how she tracked her meals, her bodily measurements and weight, her exercise and sleep routines. She was happy that this was keeping her fit, healthy and on top of her game. Then someone asked her what she thought about some faceless corporation in California knowing the day by day details of her diet? To which she replied “I don’t really care who knows I had muesli or toast”, and this awoke my inner mischievousness.
To set the scene – a little while before the panel session, I had been reading about an event in a hotel (perhaps embassy) in India, where key personnel were hunted down and executed mercilessly in the building. The perpetrators of this horror were systematically breaking down doors to find the occupants sheltering for cover. They would take pictures of them using mobile phones, and send them to an accomplice who would check their images against publicly available information on the Internet, such as company “about us” pages, government press conferences, social media. If the image matched the digital profile they were looking for, the accomplish confirmed so much and the helpless victim executed.
A seemingly innocent and innocuous photo on the web turned out to be a life or death matter.
Now, coming back to the panel session, I was shocked that of all people, this public personality had such a disregard for personal data privacy, so I asked a somewhat pointed question…
“Sally, can we talk about your weight?”
As you might imagine, the response I got was one tempered in fire – “Be very careful” she playfully warned.
Which was my point. She did care.
Following the panel session we discussed this in more detail, and how, just because we can’t find a way to misuse something, doesn’t mean that someone else can’t. I recanted the India story above and talked more broadly about how governments and laws can change quite quickly, with dire consequences for some.
Digital Footprints in Afghanistan
In our Western economies we don’t often think about how our freedoms and rights could change overnight, we believe we live in stable democracies and that our rights will be honoured and protected in the future, and the past.
If you are interested in a little thought experiment, I encourage you to watch the Netflix mini-series “How to become a tyrant“. It’s a tongue-in-cheek training course that creates a playbook from the most twisted and devastating tyrants in history. As you watch it, and pick up the “tips” you might notice some of the behaviours in even our “stable democracies” – but enough of that, this post isn’t a conspiracy theory.
Bringing this back to today. Afghans have enjoyed a brief relationship with personal liberty and freedom, but in this time, many have created digital fingerprints and footprints that they would rather the incoming regime not know about. As Thomsons Reuters Foundation points out in this article, this panic over digital histories is now spurring a rethink in personal data collection, especially biometric data like fingerprints and facial recognition data.
Now, who am I to preach about the virtues of keeping your personal data private? Google me and I’m everywhere, going back years and years. However, I am aware of that and that it may pose risks to my future that I can’t comprehend right now. The problem is that many people do not think about this.
For consumers: I hope this has helped you think about the data you willing and unwittingly give away.
For developers: You might have perfectly innocent reasons for collecting data, but how are you securing it to prevent it from being abused by malicious actors?
For tech companies: I’ve written about a number of tech companies helping to protect our privacy, including D-ID (protecting against facial recognition abuse) and Ecosteer (protecting personal data in the IoT era). If you are focused in this area and would like to feature, then let me know here.