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Can We Still Embrace Technology Without Giving Up Privacy?

11/26/2013 12:33 EST | Updated 01/26/2014 05:59 EST

The Internet gave us what we we wanted: connection. A way to connect to each other and to worlds -- real or virtual -- outside our own immediate surroundings. It made us feel needed, wanted, and loved, and helped us find communities of shared interests and like minds.

But in what seemed like a blink of an eye, that connectivity has flipped into hyper-connectivity.

Where people used to call with important questions, we now get pinged with a constant flow of emails and instant messages; where we used to hear of milestone events -- weddings and trips of a lifetime -- we are now the audience to a continuous feed of status updates, spoilers and selfies. What unifies all of this content -- the emails, the cell phone photos, the instant messages -- is that they can all be archived -- and they can all be shared.

Two clicks away from viral

"Everything is two clicks away from going viral, all the time," says Kashmir Hill, writer of the Forbes privacy column, The Not-So Private Parts.

And everything means everything. From personal information, intimate photos, and private conversations -- nothing is private on the web anymore. And with the ubiquitous presence of mobile devices, it can feel as if nothing is private off the web either.

So what can you do to protect your privacy online? Or are there new ways to live, connect, and still be private?

You can deactivate Facebook, shut down your Twitter, or change the settings on your Instagram. But regaining privacy in the digital era isn't as easy it seems.

E-mailing, shopping online and even using your mobile phone are all ways that expose you.

If even accomplishing the most mundane everyday tasks pose a risk to your privacy, what's the alternative? Should you consider unplugging altogether -- or is there a balance?

"We're in a world where we have cameras in our pockets in our phones, we're soon going to have Google Glass, cameras on our faces: Face-based computing. And the real question becomes, how do we balance the benefits of publicness and privacy?" asks Marvin Ammori, of the New America Foundation, a lawyer and scholar known for his work on network neutrality and Internet freedom.

These are the questions that inspired rdigitaLIFE's new #rprivatelife series with The Walrus. We speak with experts, writers, policy makers and professors who all have insights on the different aspects of the issue. From the state of surveillance, to revenge porn and teaching consent, to anonymity and the rise of Anonymous -- we take a look at the forces that drive the conversation about digital privacy, in all aspects of our personal, professional and public lives.

But surveying the status quo and acknowledging the present state is only a small step in opening up a forum for ideas about how we want to interact with each other, and with our "companion" technologies. The series is an exploration of the complex nature of privacy in the digital world -- but it's also a call for new ideas and new voices to challenge society on these issues.

Philosophers wanted

"We need some more philosophers in this debate, it can't be just engineers, it can't be just product managers... we need to make sure that technology in today serves society and empowers us, makes us better people and make the world a better place," says Jules Polonetsky, the director of the DC based Future of Privacy Forum.

He says he has faith that individuals will eventually make decisions about technology which will work for us. And he's right. Small progress has been made to regulate digital privacy.

For example, Canada has just announced a new privacy legislation, which makes it a criminal act to share explicit photos without a person's permission.

It's an enormous breakthrough for the campaign to end cyberbullying, but under the law, police are also given easier access to phone call and e-mail metadata kept by internet and cellphone companies. It's a double edged sword in that in safeguarding individual privacy, the collective privacy of Canadians are put at stake.

It starts to feel like a no win situation, or as Mr. Polonetsky puts it, as though "the data genie is out of the bottle" and there is no turning back. Following the NSA leaks it became clear that Big Brother was watching, and listening -- but so are thousands of little brothers and sisters -- as anyone with smartphone in his or her pocket now holds a powerful surveillance device, capable of capturing our confidential business transactions and most intimate conversations. Without being aware, we've come to track each other, and as Kashmir Hill worries, "those floodgates are kind of coming down on information and I think in society we're getting a little bit addicted to spying on one another." All of this stresses the need for new thinkers to guide technologists and legislators. It's time to ask questions -- of our technologies, of each other... and of ourselves. How much is our privacy worth, and how much are we willing to trade in favour of convenience or connection?

While it can feel like we're on the brink of stepping into the plot of a dystopian science fiction film, Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian says it's crucial not to write off the issue entirely. "People often think with the enormous growth of online social connectivity, ubiquitous computing, wifi, position systems, surveillance everywhere, [that] we have to say goodbye to privacy. I just want to ask people not to give up on privacy when they think about the future."

What do you think? How to do you protect your privacy? Follow the new series and join the conversation, #rprivatelife

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