The Right to Privacy in a Brave New World.
Posted by inspir3d on February 20, 2007
“Privacy is under siege,” the new obsession: espoused as the most fundamental of right, marketed as the most needful of commodities, guaranteed to cure all ills including drowning away all your sorrows (if only you could get your good to boot other half to go swimming that is). Going once, going twice and gone on the third strike of the gavel, your privacy and freedom!
What is privacy? And how true is it that freedom is under siege? The claim has been made or implied so often in the Singapore blogosphere, that netizens, no matter how passive they are in their behavior, now remain quite dutiful to echo the same sentiments about lack privacy. If I would have to hazard a guess, our perception of privacy or lack of it, has a lot to do with how we perceive the valence between state control and personal freedom. Freedom of course is relative, a missionary stewing in a pot may suddenly experience the freedom of divine rapture more readily than those who are waiting to eat rubber English clergyman. Ultimately, the question hinges on how we make sense of situations, events and outcomes. You would have imagined in the digital age, the proliferation of information networks has actually increased our capacity to seek out the truth, to make sense of either the dystopian or utopian condition of our “freedom.” But I really wonder whether like me, you too suffer from that sinking feeling whenever you log on to the net, whether perhaps the world has suddenly gone dark amid the doom and gloom that is so often depicted by bloggers in general. “Privacy is in a dreadful state,” “we are under siege, “ “our rights have been eroded,” – trust me, surfing the net these days in Singapore is like taking a stroll in down town Baghdad. It’s a depressing scenery which lends a sardonic gloss to the saying, “being at the bottom of the human pyramid is no fun” (I am of course referring to those naked human pyramids American GI like to build in Abu Ghraib prison.).
And why is there such a vast difference between what has been depicted in the real world and the net? Nothing aggravates this estrangement more than the ambiguity of not really knowing the truth.
The clue, I think, lies very much in how we all personally define “freedom.” The right to privacy – defined by Louis Brandies and Samuel Warren in 1890 as, “the right to be left alone to do as we so wish” – seems at first glance to be an elemental principle. It’s the rallying cry of most bloggers fighting for their right to write, for the right to dissent and the right to think whatever they wish to think. On closer examination, privacy and its derivative “freedom” proves elusive, like French pastry, the force lies in its capacity to amaze while proving short in the substance and weight department.
Allow me to share with you what I mean by the flake test of “freedom.” Just a couple of days ago, I got an anonymous call which begun quite abruptly by the person on the other side of the line ranting off in military style, “Are you blah blah blah, correct?, IC number 123456, correct? Address blah blah Singapore Zoo, correct?” (This must be Amex’s new call center staffed by ex-KGB agents in Siberia.) Queries like this are really quite common nowadays, after all I had just made a “suspicious purchase,” an expensive German motorized wheelchair for my granny (since it came with attachments which allowed trays to be fitted on it, I thought it would be a nifty way of serving candies to visitors during the CNY. It also means for once at least I wouldn’t have to lug the cardiac de-fibulator when we go visiting). This was my first encounter with a faceless juggernaut firm which had all my personal details, including my mummy’s maiden name, and for a moment I felt eerily exposed and naked – my privacy had been invaded, it was under siege, Olga had my personal details and there is no knowing what she would do with it, polonium laced bak kuah! Two metric ton female KGB agents who perhaps read my post and have taken a personal interest in righting my skewered MCP ridden statements. You get what I mean, don’t you?
The panic (with a real or imagined atomic bomb Olga) has all the stake burning and paranoia of a good old boooooh! Only it’s missing one vital ingredient: the bogeyman. He remains a no show, even amid the cries of “there is less privacy than there used to be.” To me the claim doesn’t stand up to conventional reasoning or even the historical realities of how we may have once regarded the whole notion of privacy and freedom.
Consider for example ordinary life during the 1960’s in Singapore, when it was not unusual for four families to share a room, where personal space was defined by a wafer thin plywood partition and sarongs served as doors. Here, the typical Singaporean lived under conditions of near-panoptical surveillance. This was a period when the grapevine wasn’t so much an abstraction as it is today as it was a very real network of gossipy store keepers, street merchants and kay poh housewives who really formed the ranks of the thought police. In those days a man couldn’t even enjoy the little pleasures life offered, such as scratching an itch on his crotch without provoking the auntie brigade into speculating whether perhaps they may have a fornicator in their midst. Yes, here in the multi pineapple eye land, our Singaporean boy was tracked and monitored no end, his every action and words analyzed and speculated upon endless like Talmudic scholars laboring to understanding every detail even the fractional minutiae – as if ball scratching holds all the secrets of the universe. It’s a reality which does accord well with my impression of “no freedom” today.
For me, the idea of privacy or freedom denied is a battle that is still waged everyday as I go to work on the MRT. Whenever I see someone behaving in an antisocial way on the trains, I don’t make silent eye contact with the other people on the carriage, roll my eyes up, and then hope that I won’t be stabbed. No. I actually confront the person. When I saw a man feigning to doze off to the land of nod when a pregnant woman walk in. I just woke him up.
When I saw a guy sitting with his legs splayed apart so they intruded into the space the ladies who sat beside him as they sulk sheepishly. I retaliated by asking him whether he would like me to shrink wrap him and put him on the roof of the carriage. He slunk away.
When I saw a man doling out ring-tone torture on the train, I asked him whether he would like me to see how it looked as a nose accessory on his dumbfounded face. He slithered away, and I noted with glee the approving looks from the rest of the commuters. They beamed at me like I had just saved them from bird flu.
I have thousands of these little triumphs, over the casual invasion of ones privacy which simply makes city living unbearable. I am improving day by day, in my effort to protect my own privacy and the rights of others to enjoy their pied de terre of personal privacy. There are of course vexing problems which continue to plague this noble fight. Such as, how long can one stare at a person without coming across as gay or a psycho suicide bomber? Is there any way to initiate conversation with a fellow tube passenger without coming across as a fundamentalist Charismatic Christian who is out to recruit his quota of adherents? Or how does one smile at a fellow commuter without coming across as a sex crazed stalker or a mentally unbalanced person?
As for the government or the PAP intruding on my privacy, yes I do get that too – the irritating MOE uncle who keeps asking us whether we have cleared our gutters recently of dead leaves, to prevent the killer dengue larvae from seeding; or the odd call from the feed back center asking whether I think Singapore is going to be hit by a meteorite in the next 5 years, or whether LKY is a facsimile, a radio controlled robot (this could be a case for Molder and Scully); or the occasional reminder from the tax office asking me to declare whether perhaps I don’t have a twin brother who has been impersonating me to draw multiple tax rebates.
I have a gut feel about these things (it has got nothing to do with the doggy fish head curry I had last night): There isn’t really any attempt to control us. I don’t share the same paranoia as those who occupy the upper echelon of the brotherhood movement, where everyone falls silent when someone says, “I see plans within plans within plans.” (then they all sit in one corner and mull as if deliberating whether they have all forgotten to turn off the gas when they closed their front doors….theatrics galore). For me the fight for personal space, privacy and freedom is in the small little hundred and one things. It’s not in the big picture stuff, it’s in the scouring litany of every day life, like whether there is a secret universe where all pens go to when they disappear or where do all my bunny prints socks go to and why can’t anyone remember to close the cap on the toothpaste. It will be the small stuff for now and I suspect for a long time to come.
I hope to see you all on the MRT one day. Meanwhile, happy traveling and remember, I will be watching. Oh dear that could be another conspiracy theory……..your rights, your rights, a penny for yours that truly right.
(By Astroboy / Satire / Sociology / EP 99003823-2007 / The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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