On Privacy and Surveillance-04

I had written on this topic before (here, and here, and again here)

Here, I’ll recount another true story where personal privacy was broken into. My earlier posts dealt with surveillance of “manual labour” type where people watch on people. In this post, the surveillance I reveal is of a digital kind. But first, the story.

In my last company I had a colleague who quit to join an Investment bank. Couple of weeks into his new job, the colleague called me and said:”Sir, you have wonderful investments.” And thereafter, he called out my every investments in stocks, bonds and mutual funds. He knew how much money I had invested, the profit and loss of every investments, and how much money lay uninvested in my account. He had big plans on how and where to allocate my spare cash.

When the call ended, I felt as if I was naked. I rushed to the nearest branch of the investment bank, which is just a few minutes walk from my home across the highway and there, I blurted out my woes. To my surprise, the bank staff did not find my problem unusual. They said coolly – Any authorised staff can access investment accounts through customer’s registered mobile number.

Any authorised staff can access investment accounts through customer’s registered mobile number. Similarly, PAN and Aadhar can be used too.

So, the former colleague may not be only accessing mine but many of his old chums who had account with the same investment bank. If he is still working there, he may still be monitoring and informing. As for me, I dumped my Bank and moved elsewhere.

I realised the futility of my complaint. The source of my anger was personal – that someone known to me and to my other colleagues, used my ID to know my investment details. He may have shared it with others.

But let’s broaden the question – what if, unknowns know about others money details?

In the world we live now, data, if it exists, will become common knowledge. Then what is the protection? “Anonymity of Crowd.” If your head is not above the crowd, you’re safe, to some extent. But crowd should comprise of substantial number of people. This means, if you’re in Mumbai, a few crores here and there will not raise eyebrows. One could only get calls from Noida or Gurgaon for investments. But if one is above the crowd, Ambani or Tata or all those big stars, then they will be targeted. Recent “Ambani Bomb Scare” may be a big extortion case.

But what about small towns? Say a village of 100 people, “where everyone knows everyone not only by “name” but also by “how much money they have in the bank”, because the bank teller and peon are also village dwellers. Mr. Modi has encouraged villagers to open bank accounts which they have and where Mr. Modi dutifully deposits money. So everyone’s equal. He will be a foolish villager to deposits his extra earning in the same account. He will invite dacoits. Villagers of India are no fools. For eons they have buried money secretly. That’s a best way.

On this “anonymity of crowd”, let’s take a test case on how this can be defeated.

Suppose, a person in Noida gets your number. He will keep on calling you from his different numbers. That’s the most they do. Now suppose, a person from Noida, instead of calling you, calls your colleague and says: so and so has so much money in the bank, so, why don’t you tell him to invest in “flower-pot” land in Noida. And the next day he calls again, this time a different colleague and says the same thing.

This is a good trick, isn’t it. But you see what’s happening. Gradually, your anonymity is being eroded. At a level of a large city, you’re a crowd. But at a level of your workspace, you’re a target. In other words, your information, say, at the level of Amazon has a different bite than your information at the level of your H.R..

In my previous company, there were people, at “important looking” posts, who “googled” the internet for information on other people. I had posted some work related Q&A in some obscure website, that too was discovered. I had opened an account in a forum where I posted anonymously, even that was uncovered. And watch this – my Facebook posts used to be discussed with higher management.

Privacy and Surveillance is an exciting subject and topics of many movies and TV and books. But it’s painful and scary when the same hits home. My oversensitivity towards this topic springs from my rabid past life where I gave birth to ghosts, some of whom still haunt me from places up above.