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Us vs them vs data sharing?

05.12.2019
Eline N. Lincklaen Arriens
Opinion

For generations, there has been a continuous conversation and division between what sociologists and historians call the “self” vs. “other”, or “us” vs. “them”.1 For those unfamiliar with the terms, they refer to – or, at least, are heavily associated with – colonialism and Western countries imposing their rule and mannerism in the East. Due to the connotation, another way to phrase the conversation is between the “West” and the “East”, or West vs. East. There is a long and still ongoing conversation around the dichotomy in the West and the East and researchers, such as psychologists, sociologists, and ethnographers, are still uncovering the influence factors like geography, culture, and language have on our reasoning, behaviour, and sense of self, for instance.2

In this dichotomy, a trending conversation is on privacy. In the East, citizens appear to be more willing to sacrifice their privacy for what they perceive as the common good. For example, consider China and the scale of their use of surveillance cameras and facial recognition. By embracing such technologies, the country will create an extensive database of faces and enable a quicker arrest after a crime is committed and filmed or even just prevent illegal subletting,3 for example. Though there are some arguments within the country as to how invasive these technologies are, such as the recent lawsuit by a law professor against Hangzhou Safari Park,4 most citizens are accepting of these technologies or are, at least, resigned to acknowledging that it is now a part of their daily life. In China, facial and now also fingerprint recognition are being rolled out across the country and are predicted to replace the use QR and bar codes for identification in services such as Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s payments arm Alipay.5

In the West, such a wide introduction of facial recognition would have panned out very differently. The West is keen to introduce technologies to increase surveillance, such as Disney World scanning your fingerprints6 or Homeland Security wanting to use facial recognition at airports to monitor who enters and leaves the United States.7 However, people in the West are more protective of their privacy and are less likely to allow companies or the government to introduce these technologies without a fuss. In 2019, there have been several high-profile lawsuits against technology companies using facial recognition, forcing them to abandon or minimise its use. For example, in June 2019 Microsoft deleted a massive online dataset that had more than 10 million images of 100,000 individuals that were being used to train other companies’ (their clients) facial recognition systems.8 Or, in September 2019 when Facebook announced that they would first ask their users’ permission to use the “face recognition template” feature and remove it  if the user did not opt-in.9

In previous opinion pieces, I have already discussed the loss of consumer trust in brands10 and focused on the question of how and who we trust to share our personal data with.11 For the latter especially, there is no clear-cut answer, only an ongoing conversation on what privacy and security entail and the deeper question of to what extent we trade quick convenience with our private data.

From my feeling after growing up in the East, and making a massive generalisation, those in the East are more willing to sacrifice their privacy for convenience and thus do not prioritise or heavily think about the topic of privacy. Or, they see privacy as something they have little to no control over and are willing not to think about it if there is an argument for helping society. Living in the West, the conversations around privacy and the notion of trust is a never-ending conversation with no end in sight. Though there are several benefits, especially towards the common good of society, as to why we should, for example, allow facial recognition or fingerprint scanning technologies to be implemented to increase overall security in our country, the idea of being constantly watched and monitored in our daily life is off-putting.  

So, I pose the question: is our privacy worth more than the common good? And, to what extent would you trade your personal information for convenience, and what would change your mind?