Privacy is like a mango

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“Privacy is like a mango”, said Simon Davies, Director of Privacy International, at an Open Forum on Privacy at FAST-NU in Lahore. Gus Hosein and Dave Banisar, his PI colleagues, cringed when he said that and some of us are still trying to understand what he meant.

Anyhow, he got our attention. Maybe that was all he wanted to achieve. I must admit I had not given much thought to this issue prior to the visit by these experts – at least I had not really looked at it as an issue.

So when Simon asked how many of us had filled in the attendance sheet at the door, providing our names, designations, name of organizations, email addresses and cell numbers, all of us raised our hands. His next question was “How many of you bothered to ask us what we were going to do with this information?” Of course none of us had. And this is where the problem starts.

Whether we fill out an application form for a passport, an ID card, a visa, a credit card or whether we fill in a registration form for a workshop or for a free download from a website, we never ask WHAT any of those people are going to do with the information they are collecting. We don’t even know how many people will have access to the information, or if they are in fact going to sell it to a marketing organization. Have you ever wondered about the number of marketing calls you get on your mobile? Or the mass mailings you receive on your email account? Where do you think those people get hold of your contact information? All this personal information is open to misuse and in many countries there are no laws to protect us against this misuse.

When you look at social networking sites like Facebook or mySpace or even photo/video sharing sites like Flickr or youTube, you begin to see that we are all sharing a lot of information that can be misused. I believe Flickr actually says that any photo you upload no longer belongs to you and can be used for any purpose. Scary to say the least.

And what about information collected by the National Health Service in the UK or NADRA in Pakistan? How many people have access to it? What do they do with it? What if it is lost? Yes NHS lost millions of records recently. That must have included health information about adults and kids that is now somewhere out there.

With smart cards becoming the norm in countries around the world, is it not our responsibility to advocate for privacy legislation and to start building in the right Privacy safeguards into technology products/websites/registration procedures etc so that we know that any information that is collected is used to a limited extent, for the purpose for which it was meant, and that it will be retained for a limited amount of time after which it will be destroyed. Shouldn’t we during this period have access to the data so that we can ensure its continued accuracy?

In subsequent posts I will talk about actual cases of misuse of data – deliberate and through pure negligence – which have resulted in causing grievous harm to the rights of individuals.

A friend of mine has put up as associated post on Privacy that I thought I would share here. We should start to think about all this and help our government to formulate policy that will protect them and will provide us with the safeguards we deserve as citizens of this country.

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