Mal Fletcher
Your Privacy - Guard It Or Lose It

Is there any such thing as a "private citizen" any more? In an age of ID theft and vastly increased public surveillance, is privacy dead?

These were among the questions put to me in a radio interview this morning.

There's no doubt that, if we are to live in a safe and lawful society, we will need to compromise some aspects of our privacy - especially as the potential for technology-based crime increases.

Most of us are willing to pay such a price to enjoy the benefits of a globalised, interconnected consumer society. However, we are concerned when we read how anti-terrorism laws and the like are used to "spy" on innocent citizens, as happened recently with a UK Borough Council.

We're also worried about how new digital technologies are allowing governments to move from limited surveillance to mass surveillance of entire populations. High-powered CCTV cameras, biometric systems and computer intercept systems make mass surveillance comparatively easy.

The technology is amoral; but the end user is going to be a person, or group of persons, with all the frailties associated with being human. Once data is collected it's on hand to be used, for good or ill - maybe not now, but in future.

By increasing surveillance, usually in the name of security, governments and big businesses are, in some respects, exhibiting a techno-reliance common in society as a whole. There is a tendency for all of us, in everyday life, to see electronic technologies as panaceas for social ills or solutions to problems.

Generally speaking, we are becoming more high-tech but less high touch. For me as an individual, for example, it's much easier and quicker to e-mail someone down the street than it is to actually go visit them.

Governments and other authorities are guilty of the same thinking, but on a much bigger scale.

Inserting new technologies to reduce crime is seen as better -- or at least cheaper -- than putting more police on the streets or investing more money in programs that enhance social inclusion.

There are possible benefits in the increase in surveillance technologies. Yet we must weigh them against the probable long-term consequences, especially to the psychologies of groups of people.

An awareness that we are under constant surveillance is likely to change our behaviour, in a negative direction. We are more likely to become suspicious and cynical about society as a whole. In extreme cases, we may even act out our anger and frustration in anti-social ways.

We are also less likely to trust people in authority. Trust is at the very core of democratic government. Governments can only operate because their citizens allow them to, entrusting certain powers -- limited powers -- into their hands. But if governments won't trust the people, it may not be long before the people return the favour; which leads to social insecurity and a desire to fight the system rather than work with it.

ID theft may be on the rise, but it is not extra surveillance (or privacy invasion, depending on your point of view) that will reduce it.

We need to educate ourselves as to how we interact with a digital world, and learn our rights when it comes to information stored about us.

How can we guard against invasions of privacy? Nothing we do will be completely foolproof in this networked, digital age. However, there are some measures we can take to lessen the likelihood of ID theft, for example, or the chances of private information getting into the wrong hands.

1. Be very careful giving out personal information if requested online or by phone. If you get a phone call from someone claiming to be a representative of your bank, for example, don't share security information on your credit cards or the like. No bona fide bank or lender will ever ask you for this information in this way.

2. Where possible, in restaurants and shops, try to keep your credit card in sight at all times when paying the bill. Many restaurants now will use hand-held scanners, so that you can pay your bill at the table; the card never has to leave your site. This is much better than having a staff member take your car away to several minutes, as copies of cards can be made without too much fuss.

3. Don't use public computer terminals to enter very personal information, such as credit card numbers. By all means, use the web for payment, but only on personal computers.

4. Be very wary about information you enter in social networking sites and the like. A good rule is: don't enter anything you wouldn't want a close friend to know about you. Whatever you add to your "digital identity print" remains there forever. Employers may use this information in place of your approved CV. And the more information there is about you online, the easier it is for criminals to build up patterns based on your lifestyle.

ID theft - or credit card fraud - is often most dangerous when it involves small, seemingly innocuous amounts of money which basically line up with your normal lifestyle choices.

You may easily notice several thousand dollars missing from your account all at once, but you may not notice small amounts spread over time which look much like those you would normally use.

5. Be aware of basic government legislation and the rules set by consumer and other watchdogs in your area or nation. Granted, none of us has time to read through huge swathes of legal jargon, but it pays to be aware of our basic rights.

For example, if companies keep badgering you with junk mail or junk phone calls about their products, you usually have the right to remove yourself from their contact lists. Remember: the onus will be on you to put a stop to this. Usually, if you don't make a stand, you will continue to receive unwanted material.

6. Don't stop using cash. We're all reliant on credit cards these days - and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Yet we're diving headlong toward a zero cash economy, despite the benefits of using cash when it comes to debt reduction and privacy.

Studies are showing that people who overspend are less inclined to face up to their problem when they are dealing only with digital money - credit cards and the like. They can't see the value of their spending in terms of anything tangible, like cash-in-hand.

Cash is much more 'secure' than cards, too. If someone steals cash from you, that's painful enough. But at least the thief will not be able to defraud you further, using your cash to gain and use personal information about you or your lifestyle.

The bottom line is this: unless we each try, in small but important ways, to guard our privacy, we will continue to see it eroded. And without privacy, we do not have the same freedom to make the positive - but not always popular - choices that underlie good living.

Without privacy, we are unable to fully explore relationships. Relationships are only possible when we choose to be open and vulnerable with specific individuals. When openness is something forced upon us from outside, free relationships become impossible.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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