The quarter ending March was in a way a milestone. The trend-line tracing the growth of mobile phone penetration hit another all time high, 84 percent. That’s where the percentage number will most likely hover around in the future, even while the total number of users continues to climb in keeping with population growth. This signals a coming of age for the country, the economy, the people.
A small percentage of the population, 10 percent, has more than one handset. That number isn’t likely to change much either. The replacement market is getting bigger each year, as prices drop and technologies improve. Now it’s the “smartphone” that’s all the rage, a “must-have” for tens of millions chasing the dream. An amazing 24 percent of adult Indonesians already own a smartphone, another statistic that is expected to cross 33 percent by the end of the year.
These hand-sized computers are capable of much more than they are being tasked to do, but it is early days. Most of the users are tuning into the Internet, with much of that time spent on Facebook and Twitter. As the weeks and months go by, we can expect more and more people to take to e-commerce and mobile banking, encouraged by the sheer convenience of doing things on-the-go. It is a game-changer. More women are shopping online, more men are getting their news off the web. In so many other ways, we are changing the way we used to behave. The smartphone is making it all so easy.
This smart new instrument will help make people smarter. If we are all doing more, much faster, from anywhere at anytime, that’s smart. Who can argue with that, do I hear you say? Edward Snowden certainly could. Whichever side of the argument you are on, whether you think he is a villain or a hero, the inescapable truth is simply this: you are being spied on. From the spy’s perspective, the smarter your phone the dumber you get. I’m no technology wizard, far from it. But I would urge you to talk with one. Or go online and do some serious reading. Here’s what I have concluded, as a consequence of the time spent and effort made, thanks to the ongoing Snowden drama.
First, I am going to switch off my computer and my smartphone, before I go to sleep. Not just the browsers, but the instruments as well. Power off. That’s because I do not want to be “harvested”, I do not want my identity to be used or my files spied on. Is that happening? The answer is I don’t know. Can it happen? The answer to that is a resounding yes. I do not want anyone to go through my drawers. I do not want my privacy to be invaded. Not by anyone. Not the bad guys or the good guys. What is increasingly troubling is that I’m no longer able to tell who’s who.
Just days before the American president was scheduled to accuse his visiting Chinese counterpart of cyber-attacks, Snowden let the world know the truth. By revealing some of the evidence, not all that he has in his posession, a young man has ignited an important debate right around the world. Whether he was right or wrong, only a court should decide. Except for the fact that he is a “whistle-blower”, not an enemy combatant.
Have you wondered why the authorities, supported by the media, are so focused on debating the pros and cons of an individual’s actions, without aiming the halogen lamps at the National Security Agency of the United States? Why are we so eager to know why he did what he did but show little interest in asking the champions of democracy, human rights and all the other good stuff, to explain their violations of privacy right around the globe? As one European parliamentarian put it, “you do not spy on your friends”.
I am not an American. If I were, I’d be very angry, disappointed and worried, all at the same time. I understand the need for the state to keep its people safe. I respect the law and the people who are elected to make them. If the world we live in requires our security agencies to inspect our rubbish bins every night, then the necessary laws needs to be enacted, protocols and procedures put in place, and only then enforced. If I cannot accept the law of the land, then the two choices before me are plain. Protest, till the law is suitably amended to the satisfaction of all concerned. The abuse of an ancient law that was written well before the internet had even been imagined is an abuse of power, by my reckoning. The second option is to leave the country and make life difficult for the authorities bending the rules at home.
Fortunately, I don’t have to do either. Not yet, anyhow. That does not mean I, or you, have nothing to fear. The debate on basic rights, freedoms and responsibilities will intensify in the months and years ahead. It is a discussion we need to engage in, for the sake of humanity. We must remember that the internet has no geography, no borders, and very few rules.
We should think again about the fact that Google, Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo are all American corporations. If the CIA went to the trouble to ask for a US court order to search your account, these corporations would be obliged to open their vaults. I cannot imagine any US court writing search warrants for Indonesia’s BIN or Australia’s ASIO for that matter.
No one, no body, no country is above the law. If the law required does not exist, it is now time for the debate, to write the law that’s appropriate at least for today if not tomorrow. What will vex most lawmakers is the need for international law to govern what is a borderless world, the Internet. The Americans are not exactly famous for their support of the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol or other such global initiatives. And so, we will continue to live in a new Wild West, for some time to come. For your own sake, and the health of your business, be careful of the companies you keep. Do you really have to tweet? Though I have nothing to hide, I would rather be faceless now than be on Facebook.
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