Overrating Privacy

by Echo Xie

In the discussion of technology and social media, one thing always pops up: privacy. With every step we take to make our communication with each other easier and more seamless, there are always people standing on the other side of the road, waiving a big stop sign.

There are two things that particularly scare people: cellphone video/photography and location service.  It’s already impossible to tell whether the person across the street is tweeting or sneaking a photo of you; and soon we can literally take photo with a simple nod or snap. FBI spy kits for everyone!

People are even more sensitive and cautious about location information. It’s bad enough that Facebook tells everyone I went to see a cheesy romantic movie yesterday, now it wants to know where I saw it! Except for the fear of leaking one’s secret identity, jokes aside, people are really worried about exposing their whereabouts to strangers.

Not to say the above concerns aren’t legitimate, but to be honest, the whole privacy thing is in fact a rather modern and western concept, a side product of modern civilization.

If you look on a global scale, either mobile photography or location tracking is so much more of a blessing than a curse. In many cases, the technology we are so used to (or sick of), is the most powerful weapon to defend human rights; in some cases, it even saves lives.

Witness is a non-profit human rights organization, which identifies video as a crucial tool for “human rights documentation and advocacy.” The organization believes that everyone is responsible to report at the site of human rights abuse, as long as you have a camera/cellphone/ipod in your pocket. The organization’s slogan, “see it, film it, change it” says it all. Videos on various issues from all around the world are collected and integrated with human rights campaigns, making human rights violations more visible across the globe.

The non-profit technology company Ushahidi started out in 2008 as a simple website that enabled volenteers to report violence in Kenya during the post-election fallout. A few hours after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Patrick Meier (founder of Ushahidi) launched a crisis map that uses real-time text messaging, e-mails, Facebook, Twitter and any of the other means available to identify disaster-affected areas and critical needs from inside Haiti. The Haiti map helped improve thousands of lives using location technology, social media and online crowd sourcing. In 2011, Ushahidi was asked to join the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) team and developed a map to monitor Liberia’s national elections. Ushahidi was able to file almost 5,000 reports from perspectives that otherwise would have been hard to access.

Maybe privacy is a overrated. No matter how intertwined our relationship with technology gets, the world will not be destroyed by machines as in Hollywood sci-fi movies. At the end of the day, technology will only strengthen humanity and our empathy towards each other by connecting people together, both physically and emotionally.

And media, either in the form of a series of tubes, or in an invisible keyboard between our fingers, are still just tools to make our lives better, not the other way around.

(The graphic is from Dave Pearson of Billingborough, England, U.K. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

This entry was posted in Cell Phones, Crowd Sourcing, Facebook, Haiti, Kenya, Liberia, Photography, Privacy, Social Media, Twitter, United Nations, Ushahidi, Videos, Witness and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.