At the outset, I confess my temptation to borrow the title from the song of The Police, a pop band of late ‘70s.
Are we over documented in today’s world ?
I ask this question to myself whenever I fill up a form for say, opening a bank or a demat account or for that matter willing to subscribe to a new telecom connection or buy a car or apply for a home loan. The other day, before the country caught in the rage of the second wave of the ubiquitous virus, I tried visiting a friend of mine who is key managerial personnel in a mid size corporate. Other than minding the Covid related Ps and Qs, I was made to pass through a modern ritual. The person behind the glass enclosure craned his neck to get my name, address and mobile number and in a quick reflex keyed in all that into the computer on his desk. He also scanned my driving license. By the time I was photographed by the roving eye of the camera placed in the front, cell phone in my pocket signalled an incoming text. It was an OTP which I promptly shared at the counter and I was handed over an admission slip which needed to be duly countersigned by my friend , who am I supposed to visit, for submission on my way out. The entire process took me about 10 minutes and at the end of it I wondered about it’s cost-benefit!
While growing up I hardly remember any occasion where we used to be asked to produce a Proof of Identity or Proof of Address except perhaps a school / college application. PAN, EPIC or UIDAI card were non existent and a driving license or a passport purportedly used to be used for its respective primary utility. Bureaucracy existed then also and recording details in registers and issuing a “pass” with stamp and signature is definitely not a modern day affliction but it was more of a tokenism than a serious requirement.
With time the identification of self has gained traction mainly due to the complexities in various financial transactions across the global banking system. The “source” and “destination” of funds and the beneficiaries thereof, need to be identified so that travelling of ill gotten money may be capped. Transforming “dirty“ money by putting it through a cycle of transactions to make it “clean” or “laundering” it for either a lawful or unlawful purpose, has its own socio-economical and political impact. Infusion of illegal money is like a deadly contagion which can destabilise an economy. Nefarious activities like terrorism, drug trafficking , gunrunning , fraud transactions for gains which are generally financed by the “laundered money”, becomes a part of the shadow economy. Therefore, before entering into any financial transaction one needs to be careful about the identity of the counterparty or the end beneficiary of that transaction which evolved into the concept of “Know Your Customer”(KYC) .
Taking a queue from United Nation’s Vienna Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988 other international bodies like IMF ( International Monetary Fund) , FATF ( The Financial Action Task Force) , Interpol ( International Criminal Police Organization ) etc. and central banks of several countries took up the issue of money laundering as a primary agenda which saw emergence of a KYC framework the world over.
If official surveillance is one side of the story, intense self documentation is the other. As a result , both out of compulsion and of choice, very little activities that we do today, does not escape leaving a footprint behind in the digital space. The websites or apps that we click every now and then, pick up our trail in terms of our visits, searches, queries, likes, dislikes which creates the treasure trove of 21st century fuel called “data”!! To some extent, compromising privacy in the digital domain is our self bestowed. Goaded by the peer pressure we vie to be more “social” which is a path to an instant gratification. If Twitter exudes us of our opinions, Facebook creates a new vista of relationships, Instagram makes our life a visual treat for our followers and WhatsApp helps us to broadcast and share our thoughts of all size & shape, to a closed community.
A ‘selfie’ has transformed a camera into a mirror for the first time !! The selfie clicking shutterbugs around us capture themselves and crowd the social media with an intent to stay in touch with the world. This is also a compromise with one’s identity.
Our sphere of privacy is shrunk every moment as we move in our day to day life. We are surveilled every where in this physical world by CCTV. It picks up the signal and traces our physical movements with the help of GPS location tagging. Face recognition or a bio metric based device used for identity validation is what that navigates us today as we meander in the public places. Imagine the barcode on your passport or visa or the chip embedded on the smartcard of the car which are a dossier of information about your identity and ownership.
Today we are talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI) which supposedly outsmarts the human intelligence. But more we succumb to it do we not fall prey to the inversion of self and gradually turn the idea of “self” meaningless ? While technology works as a good enabler to cut on efforts to find our desire and needs , does it not destroy the privacy perimeter ? In this “attention economy”, the user’s attention is the product, and this product in turn is sold to advertisers or suave marketeers for a price.
This is a new world order which perhaps we have not seen enough. While I don’t advocate a person to be a luddite , but the unstoppable torrent of technology needs to be set aside at some point of time to comprehend what’s going on around us. We should ask ourselves what will remain with us ? Only our unexpressed thoughts ? Because days are not far away when a thought reading apps will win over us and that day , truly nothing will be ours alone, anymore.
(Author works for Peerless Financial Services Ltd. in Legal & Risk Management . Views expressed are his personal)