The illusion of control: How technology rules our lives

The illusion of control: How technology rules our lives
The illusion of control: How technology rules our lives

Back in the 1980s, going to the bank with my grandmother was about the most tedious part of my summer holidays in Calcutta. It was only the promise of tiffin cake afterwards that kept me from whining my way through the whole outing. Whiz forward in time to the present — my eight-year-old nibling has probably never even seen the inside of a bank, because, as far as they know, money comes from an ATM.

We love to marvel at how technology has radically changed our lives in the last decade or so, about the sci-fi-esque integration of gadgets to our everyday existence. But then, that has been true at every juncture of history. Back when we were kids, the focus was on how (colour) television had changed socialisation patterns. Before that it had to have been something else, going right back to when the invention of the wheel must have gobsmacked an entire species. For today’s always-on-internet generation, broadband is and has always been the norm, but for those of us in our forties, the journey from typewriters to touchscreen has been quite phenomenal.

From banking and financial transactions to leisure and entertainment, from information and education to social and community interactions, literally everything has changed. So would it be fair to say technology has taken over our lives? (Chances are, early humans would probably have agreed the wheel had taken over theirs!) New and emerging technologies often seem like magic, and feeling out of control in that scenario isn’t surprising. However, with the digital revolution, a funny thing has happened. The more comfortable we’ve got with it, the less we seem to understand the tech. The more confidence with which we use our devices, the less control we seem to have on them.

Gadgets have ears too

As we’ve embraced more and more technology, we have also inadvertently given them unrestricted access to our lives. Earlier this year, a friend of mine said she was sure her phone was “listening” to her conversations. “We were making plans for a short getaway,” she told me, “And the next thing I knew, I was getting ads about weekend breaks on my apps.” She insisted that this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened; at first she put it down to coincidence, but then she got scared.

I was sceptical about it till it happened to me.

If you’ve used “Hey, Siri” or “Okay Google” with your mobile devices, you know that you can get your phone to listen to you and react accordingly. Certain phrases are programmed to trigger the gadget’s “listening” response. Tech pundits suggest that if that is possible, then apps too could be primed to listen to keywords and suggest ads based on them. But listening is just one of the ways that technology may be spying on us.

When we enabled the insidious creep of tech into our lives, we did not know what we were doing. We were simply too taken with the perceived convenience and ignored the little voice in our head that said, “Nothing is free. You always pay.” Today, we continue to persist in this bubble of denial, preferring to believe that we are safe.

One of the most common responses I get from people who want me to get on Facebook is, “But you can decide your own privacy settings.” No, you can’t. Facebook is in control, as is any other social media, of any app you may have on your phone or computer. After all, we’ve handed them the controls ourselves.

Is there a single one of us who has trawled through the many-paged terms of use of even one app we’ve installed or one website we’ve signed up at? Terms that allow these corporate behemoths to, in some cases, access even own our data, including our photographs and personal information, and possibly everything else on our gadgets.

Most of us haven’t bothered to change the default settings of a new device or app because it’s just so easy to rip them out of their packaging or install in one click and go on to making life that much more convenient. We’ve never asked ourselves why a torch app needs access to the address book and photos, and never wondered how a so-called free app is always spot on about which ads to show us. Most of us don’t bother to log out of email sessions or empty browser caches, leaving the door open for surveillance on a scale we can’t even imagine.

It isn’t just our interactions with gadgets — the gadgets themselves can talk to each other, often without our knowledge or consent (not counting consent that is hidden in a few thousand words of legalese). It isn’t just a matter of having our phone, tablet and computer synced with each other, or using an app across devices with a common login or syncing capabilities; it’s also the Internet of Things. Smart home appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, plus toys, wearable devices, cars, printers, and of course our phones and computers create an intricate information-collecting web.

And all of this information goes to a handful of big companies that know everything about our lives — from the brand of soap we use (because, of course, we buy it from an online store), to where we go everyday (thanks to GPS or a cab aggregator app), to what music we like (from our music subscription or surfing history), to how many steps we take or how many calories we’ve consumed (from our smart watches), to how old our kids are and whether we think that couple in that TV series are going to break up or not (because we posted photos of last weekend’s birthday party and argued about fictional couples on social media).

There is a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to communication or financial transactions. However, the convenience of everything happening without stepping beyond our screen of choice makes us ignore the fact that privacy is loosely defined. Of course, Microsoft, Google and Yahoo can read our emails because we are served ads relevant to whatever we correspond about. We know that copies of our text messages are probably saved by mobile providers on their servers that goodness knows who has access to. And e-commerce websites that suggest what else we might like to buy are hardly shooting in the dark. To reiterate the point, the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and so on know everything about us — and we don’t understand why we should worry about it.

“As individuals we behave on a spectrum of complicity with the demise of our privacy,” says the author Rachel Holmes in her column in the Guardian. “In truth we already know nothing’s private because the corporates and government can get it anyway. And the icing on the cake is that we are paying for our surveillance out of our own hard-pressed pockets.”

“But I have nothing to hide”

Almost two decades ago, Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law school, predicted, in his book Code (available free online): “Left to itself cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control.” The prophecy is coming to pass as we speak. A vast majority of Indian citizens fell into the Aadhaar trap without any understanding of how it creeps into the private domain and the rights it violates. A coercive programme in the first place, for many it was a price they had to pay for their survival. The system has failed, as experts had warned it would, and lives continue to be lost because of it. Yet, many others who do have an actual choice still choose to remain in denial of its dangers. The reason: the confident but flawed and irresponsible argument of: “But I have nothing to hide.”

In a 2007 research paper for the San Diego Law Review titled “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy,” Daniel Solove says, “The problem with the nothing to hide argument is the underlying assumption that privacy is about hiding bad things.” Surveillance isn’t about security, as governments claim it is — it is about abuse. “Surveillance can create chilling effects on free speech, free association, and other?rights essential for democracy,” Solove goes on to say. This is playing out in our society in horrifying ways as we speak.

Yes, of course, to a large extent most of us do have nothing to hide, and profiling by a particular organisation, or data mining from this app or the other isn’t going to make a significant difference to our lives. The problem comes in the aggregation of all the mined data. “By combining pieces of information we might not care to conceal, the government (or anyone else who has access to the data) can glean information about us that we might really want to conceal,” says Solove. “Moreover, data mining aims to be predictive of behaviour, striving to prognosticate about our future actions... It is quite difficult to refute actions that one has not yet done. Having nothing to hide will not always dispel predictions of future activity.”

“Privacy should be important to all those who value freedom and the security of a comfortable voluntary lifestyle,” says Julie Borowski, an American political commentator in the context of the extent of the NSA’s surveillance. “Privacy is your right to control the flow of information about yourself. You choose what details to share, when, where, and with whom.”

Taking back the reins

Technology may already have taken over our lives and we have no idea how much it is controlling us or spying on us. With data protection legislation in its infancy in India, the implications of this are mind-boggling. Is it too late? Are we too deep in it?

To a certain extent, the answer to both questions is yes. But there are always ways that we can take back control. For a start — using encryption and sensible password management; being discerning of the services and products we use rather than opting for the most convenient; and being mindful of the permissions and settings we allow apps and devices. PrivacyTools.io is an informative website that suggests various options and provides some insight.

But most of all, we have to address the matter of awareness. Most of us have only a superficial understanding of the dangers of data mining and surveillance, as a result of which we are opening the doors to our lives and letting the monsters in. Trouble is, we have no idea what they look like. Forget about the dystopian future of a world ruled by machines; what we must fear are governments and big corporations, and the humans behind them.