Sunday, 19 September, 2021

Commodification Of Privacy

Aashish Mishra

We are living in an age where we have access to countless platforms of communication at our fingertips. But to use them, we have to disclose increasingly personal data to unseen supra-national corporations. Everything from sending an email to searching something online to maintaining our social media account has become an act of revealing data about our preferences, attitudes, behaviours, backgrounds and even our psychological state to a soulless entity located beyond our reach and our jurisdiction.
This entity then uses the data to tailor their “product” to better suit our lifestyle which drives us to use it more and in turn, divulge more personal data, thereby trapping us in a vicious cycle. It also sells the data to advertisers, marketers, political groups and the like for commercial purposes.
The media companies have “commodified” our privacy and have turned it into an “item” to be bought and sold in the marketplace for money.
The media have always collected data about their audiences. However, they used to be limited to surveys and focus groups. But now, thanks to the advent of the digital area, they can intrude into the most intimate spheres of our lives and collect sensitive information like our date of birth, gender, age, relationship status, preferences in products and people, spending patterns, family backgrounds, addiction status and our mental status; even what we think can be and is recorded. Today, Google and Facebook know us better than we know ourselves.
And what do these corporations do with all this data? They classify and sell it to the highest bidder. Technological advancements have made media intimate and this intimacy has been abused to spy into people both physically and mentally to gather as much information as possible because the greater the volume of information, the greater the money earned.
However, it is also worth noting that the tech giants aren’t only to blame for such commodification of our privacy. The consumers are also at fault here. The media companies do not force anyone to surrender their data, the consumers willingly do so by accepting the terms and conditions and the privacy policies of their platforms.
The consumers themselves treat their privacy as an article that they trade to the corporations to use their services.
It can be argued that the consumers don’t have much choice in this regard as in the cases of smartphones where if you don’t agree to the terms and conditions, the phone will not turn on; or in the case of software where you have to accept the usage policy, no matter how objectionable, for it to launch. But there is also an equally valid argument that even when given a choice, consumer chooses to trade their privacy for perceived gains or sometimes, just for entertainment. This argument is supported by the general social media usage pattern of the population.
It is understandable that people may have to use Facebook or Twitter due to the larger “connected” social environment around them but they don’t have to play the third-party quizzes, use features like “Which celebrity do you look like?”, “Which friend has a crush on you?” and the like and don’t have to participate in polls which are ploys by external parties to gather personal data from people’s Facebook profiles. Even Facebook warns people that such sites may compromise privacy. Yet, people do it.
There is a case to be made here that Facebook commodified its users’ privacy first by giving access to such third-party apps but the users are the ones who actually engaged with them. They wilfully traded their privacy. So, the point is that the general population too has a role to play in turning their privacy into a commodity.