Many tell us what to think. I ask my readers to be skeptical. Question me and others.

Life and politics

Privacy or anonymity?

Realizing that some security measures are unavoidable, we are concerned about our privacy. Stores keep records of our purchases. Credit cards leave a trail. Whom we called and who called us is recorded somewhere. Security cameras follow us almost everywhere. The newest technologies can pull a picture of our face out of the crowd and compare it with one stored previously. The Internet opens endless possibilities of live camera viewing from any given point on the Earth, and equally easy reviewing of the recordings done earlier. With the progress in information technology, more data about our whereabouts is stored somewhere, and that data will be more easily accessible to more people.

Is it bad? Recently my friend had a bicycle stolen from the storage area in the basement of his apartment building. Only a few of the residents had a key to this section of a shared basement. If there had been cameras, he could verify whether or not his bicycle was taken by the kids next door, as he suspected. He swallowed the loss, knowing that filing a police report most likely would not help either. It has not always been like that.

I was told about an incident that happened to people whom I personally knew. Let us go back about ninety years to a small village on the outskirts of a fast-growing industrial city. Most people have already had factory jobs, but they still retained some bits and pieces of their small farms. The lady of one such household keeps several hens that freely roam the area and return to the hen house each night. And, each night, she counts her hens roosting. One day, she finds one missing. She checks around, but there is no doubt, the hen is gone. She gets the idea that her hen was stolen by one of the villagers, a man without a stable income, and known as a petty thief.

She saw him in the neighborhood that day. Without much hesitation, she runs into his house. The moment she opens the door, she is overwhelmed by the aroma of a boiling broth. “You stole my hen!” – she cries. “No, I bought it at the store” – the man answers. “You are lying. I checked, you did not buy at the local store, and you did not make a trip to the city either”.

She was nailing the man down. She bluffed a bit, but a person’s whereabouts were public knowledge and easy to verify. The man confessed that he had caught a hen that wandered into his back yard and agreed to perform some chores the next day as compensation for the lost hen. A little talk, supported by the transparency of community affairs, did more for justice than the institutionalized justice system.

We have heard many stories like that. There are still many small communities where there are no secrets. However, most of us live in big towns. Often we do not recognize the faces of people who have been living next door to us for years. We are anonymous in the store, on the street, in the elevator, almost everywhere. We do not identify our neighbors’ kids, and our children know that they are anonymous faces to people next door.

We do not know who is in need, or who has plenty. Who deserves help out of compassion, who deserves aid from mercy only. From time to time, we are shocked to discover that the person next door is a thief, a pervert, or a terrorist.

We would like to have more security, but we are concerned about privacy. Most of us live in big cities where we enjoy anonymity, often mistaken as privacy. Recently, cameras everywhere and transparency of social media make publicly known what we considered as private. From the perspective of the village or small town like the one mentioned above, with new technologies, everything goes back to normal. History makes a full cycle. On a new level, we are approaching what we have experienced already, namely that our neighbors can easily find out a lot about us and we can easily learn as much about them. Are we losing our privacy, or are we losing our anonymity?

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