What we ought to be studying from India, China and Russia’s strategy to on-line privateness

IMAGE: CC BY-SA 3.0 Nick Youngson / Alpha Stock Images

The latest Facebook scandal and the appearance of Mark Zuckerberg before a committee of US senators, most of whom showed little or no understanding of how social networks work, highlights once again the issue of online privacy.

Facebook says it’s now considering applying EU privacy standards within the context of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to its users around the world, and because of the backlash in the US and the UK over the company’s links to Cambridge Analytica, stricter privacy protection legislation could be introduced in the United States, with some countries following.

But not all: India continues to roll out Aadhaar, an identification platform using biometric data such as fingerprints, iris photography or facial recognition. Despite the problems and scandals, the government seems set on establishing a Big Brother state where people have to identify themselves even to carry out the most mundane tasks, including buying food, smartphones or carrying out financial transactions. Delhi’s failure to deal with allegations of poor security and corruption have generated doubts about a system supposedly designed to improve access to aid to the poorest.

Meanwhile, in China, President Xi Jinping presses ahead with the creation of a vast facial recognition database and the widespread deployment of CCTV in cahoots with private companies providing credit or social rating systems. All this is now delivering its fruits: a 31-year-old man wanted in connection with a police investigation, was arrested earlier this month at a concert after he was picked out by facial recognition technology from among 60,000 people, highlighting the level of its technology following extensive testing in areas of the country it deems conflictive. The case illustrates China’s “pre-crime” approach not only toward identifying and isolating potential criminals, but anybody seen as a threat to the state. There have been complaints and lawsuits against some companies over the collection and use of personal data, but there is too much at stake for the government to tolerate any slowdown of its Orwellian plans.

In Russia, a court earlier this week ordered Telegram to be shut down after a 18-minute hearing because the company refused to provide the authorities with a generic password to users’ accounts, principally because there isn’t one. In addition to privacy issues and the Kremlin’s desire to monitor all types of communication, copyright lobbies claim that Telegram is used by people to exchange unlicensed content.

Three of the planet’s largest countries: India, China and Russia, along with Iran and its halal internet, seem determined to create societies where privacy is not seen as a human right, but a threat to order. In contrast, the and possibly the United States, is trying to provide us with guarantees to protect our privacy from private enterprise, while probably spying on us under the pretext of the so-called war on terrorism or simply so as to influence how we vote.

Two models: one where governments make no effort to hide their intentions and where individual freedoms are a secondary issue, if an issue at all; and another where we’re not quite sure to what extent our privacy is really being respected, and taking to the hills or living in a cabin in the woods is not a good idea either. Take your pick: Six of one or half a dozen of the other?

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