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So much distance, so little personal space: A paradox of physical distancing

Elsa S. Hestriana
Elsa S. Hestriana

An International Relations graduate concerned about your safety on the internet

Jakarta  /  Fri, May 15, 2020  /  04:20 pm
So much distance, so little personal space: A paradox of physical distancing

We rely on apps and services from the tech giants for communication in this time of pandemic. But what are the costs? (Shutterstock/wichayada suwanachun)

We have been physically distancing and working from home for two months now. But physical distance doesn’t always grant us privacy when our personal space is no longer physical. This leads us to rethink how we value privacy and personal space – both in the digital and physical world – as we become more dependent on the internet than ever, and how their meanings have shifted.

Our private lives might not be so private when it is an open book to the tech giants, and their grip on our data only becomes firmer as our activity within their platforms increases. But apart from collecting more data, the technology they offer has also shaped our collective behavior toward privacy and personal space.

The true cost of convenience

From video-conferencing tools, instant messengers, app-based delivery services to interactive games platforms, internet-based services have provided us with even more convenience while we stay at home. However, while they appear to be free, these conveniences cost us our privacy.

Google Hangouts has become one of our first resorts for work meetings, and the surging intensity of its use only adds to what Google already knew about us. As a gentle reminder, Google doesn’t only know the basic facts about you. They also know what you’re thinking, your deepest fear and perhaps even your darkest secret. We type the exact keywords we’re thinking. We don’t lie to our search engines, and they remember everything.

We’re also witnessing increasing activities on social platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram, both owned by Facebook, whose transparency and accountability in securing its users’ data privacy have long been in question. Last month, Business Insider reported that Instagram Live usage jumped 70 percent between March-April in the United States alone.

To give you the picture of how much of one’s data a platform can obtain, in 2011, Austrian law student Max Schrems demanded Facebook give him all the data it had about him. After two years of court battle, Facebook sent him a CD containing a 1,200-page PDF. The file included not only the list of friends he could see and the posts he published, but also the pages he’d ever clicked on, all the advertising he’d ever viewed and even sensitive messages he had deleted.

Quoting the American security technologist Bruce Schneier, “Surveillance is the business model of the internet for two primary reasons: people like free and people like convenient. The truth is, though, that people aren’t given much of a choice. It’s either surveillance or nothing, and the surveillance is conveniently invisible so you don’t have to think about it.”

Personal space is no longer physical

The convenience we obtain from these surveillance businesses has also shaped our collective behavior and approach toward privacy and personal space.

In a podcast with Vox’s Ezra Klein last year, American author Dave Eggers said that we’ve grown accustomed to these tools that allow us to know what other people are up to, accepted it as a lifestyle and even assumed our right to know. “Whether it’s getting email receipts, whether it’s parents surveilling their kids, even at college. Whether it’s spouses surveilling each other through their smartphones; all the spying people do on each other. People [are] surreptitiously taking photos of each other because it’s so easy now, and you always have a high-level camera in your hands. I think that we don’t necessarily realize how quickly we’ve evolved and how quickly we have superseded our idea of our right to privacy by our right to know,” said Eggers.

He further argued, “There's a marketplace for this, and I think we've just become so comfortable with every level of surveillance.”

The “marketplace” here is a market or demand created by the surveillance industry. These surveillance technologies have not only torn down the privacy wall around us, but they’ve also shaped our behavior as well as our idea of privacy and how we value it.

Even before we were obliged to work from home, we often tolerated the acts of personal space intrusion. Sending late-night work emails or texts that could wait until the next morning is one of the smallest examples. Many of us probably don’t think much about this. With the current technology, we are used to the swift movement of information and everything is just a text away.

For many people, this work-from-home period just further erodes their privacy and personal time – more work calls during unreasonable hours and the increasing demand from your colleagues for quicker responses. Some employers even go as far as obligating their employees to install employee-surveillance software that allows the superiors to monitor their staff while working from home.

Some companies would argue that they want to ensure their workers’ productivity, especially in a challenging economic situation like the moment. However, when we start taking privacy invasion lightly and act as if it’s absolutely normal, then we need to rethink how we value privacy and personal space, both of our own and of others. What seems to be happening right now is that as we stop expecting privacy for ourselves, we stop expecting it for others.

Invading others’ privacy is not normal. We are not entitled to someone else’s personal space.

This pandemic has undoubtedly made us rethink many aspects of our lives, and privacy should be one of them. The discussion on our privacy in cyberspace has been around for a while now. But the behavioral changes that have occurred during this pandemic have urged us to take the discussion of privacy beyond our relationship with the tech giants. We must also reevaluate how we, as social beings, tolerate surveillance and accept privacy invasion as an everyday lifestyle, and how our expectations and values of privacy change, both in cyberspace and the real world.

Our personal space can no longer be defined as a physical bubble, even before this pandemic. If we cannot tolerate unwanted guests in our house, why should it be acceptable in the digital space? (wng)


Elsa is a communication professional and an International Relations graduate from the University of Indonesia with keen interests in data privacy and cybersecurity.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.