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April 11, 2018

Our digital footprints can never be private

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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If I told you 100 years ago that everyone, everywhere, would have a digital footprint, where all that we did, said, or wrote, every place we went, everyone we knew - in short, our life histories from birth to death, and beyond - could be recorded permanently using a handful of sand, you'd have dismissed me as crazy.

But during the first half of the 20th century, there was no such thing as digital electronics and I would not have been a world expert in microchip design, as I became during the second half of that same century.

In today’s reality, the handful of sand that gave birth to the microchip created the omnipresent and almost infinite sea of electronic data in which we live.

Even if you don’t have a computer, smartphone, or tablet; even if you avoid social media like Facebook, or don’t use the internet; even if you think you could live entirely divorced from technology, you are still part of it.

Your birth certificate, driver’s license, banking, university applications, utility bills, medical records – virtually every financial and informational transaction you make – is stored somewhere in digital form, whether you like it or not.

The only thing about you that is not captured digitally (so far) are your unique, unspoken thoughts. Someday, they too may be available in cyberspace, for wherever there are potential buyers, there are product developers.

The sad reality is that the buying and selling of our information – the buying and selling of our identities – is not new. It began long before the invention of computers and sophisticated data storage, back in the 1800s, with the birth of for-profit corporations and their lobbying influence on governments.

For-profit capitalism, which essentially commodified human beings in the same way as manufacturers’ raw materials, was the root cause of two world wars that resulted in the death of millions, then and now.

For the first time in history, multinational consortiums or alliances of countries pooled their military powers to engage in combat with opposing adversarial blocs far far away. Millions of innocent civilians, especially women, children, the ill, the elderly, were slaughtered as statistical collateral damage. It was Evil at its worst and most hideously efficient.

On a recent trip to Egypt, I travelled to the remote Mediterranean town of El-Alamein in the northwestern corner of the country, where I visited a massive graveyard of soldiers killed in the Second World War.

In the British section of the cemetery were graves of Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire that had conquered their country! Their lives had been co-opted to fight on behalf of their colonial masters, sold cheap in the interests of a foreign agenda.

So, should we be surprised in 2018 that our digital footprints are sold to the highest bidders? The situation isn’t all that different.

In 2011, I participated in the Egyptian uprising and it was clear to me then, as now, how extensively Facebook and other social media were exploited by the Muslim Brotherhood to hijack a grassroots uprising that the MB had not started.

Many of us complained to Facebook but were ignored; what did it care about Egyptians’ private information? Facebook was only seriously exposed in recent weeks due to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that the private information of Americans, as well as some Canadians and Britons was compromised. It was a case of selective capitalist racism, clear and simple.

Here in Canada, we aren’t faring much better. How much value have our successive governments placed on us – on our individual private lives – throughout history? Sadly, not very much.

In every overseas war to which Canada sent troops to die, not a single one of those conflicts was engaged in order to defend us from a national enemy. None, zero, zilch.

Instead, we were co-opted to help the superpowers of the day, whether Great Britain or the USA, to be more aggressive in exploiting the resources of other countries.

And here at home, our governments have waged war even within our borders through historical genocidal policies inflicted on native peoples, French Canadians, or black migrants escaping slavery. Even today there is all too frequent evidence of multinational corporations and government exacerbating institutionalized racism against minorities.

In the US, the Trump era and the rise of reactionary populism have created a culture of exploitation and self-interest where more and more personal information is for sale on the cheap to help the rich and powerful gain even more control over Americans’ lives.

So, what can we do about it?

We must be informed and proactive to resist the erosion of our collective identities. We must use our vote and let politicians know why we choose them – even if we must choose only the best of a bad lot. The alternative, of letting apathy and cynicism win, is unthinkably worse.

We must teach our children, not only about climate change, but also about the need to respect and understand one another, here in Canada and around the world.

My grandchildren, aged six to 12, have learned nothing in school about the indigenous peoples who once lived throughout Canada, and how European settlers appropriated 99% of their ancestral land through violent or deceptive means. They have never been on an educational field trip to a First Nations reserve. They do not even know what “native” means.

While many of us consciously work to care for our bodies and minds, we are missing out on engaging with the greater world outside ourselves. What if we all resolved to devote just one hour a week to a worthy cause? I could strongly recommend one: working proactively to ensure that government and big business do not sell us on the cheap.

Canada must distance itself from the military adventurism of the US and NATO. Why should we always fill the role of acting as America’s mercenaries? We used to play an internationally admired and respected role as peacekeepers; we should be doing so again.

What is the worst that could happen if we, as a country, were to stand firm, reclaim our identity, and not always be “for sale”?

The US might arbitrarily invade us as it did Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, the Philippines, or turn us into a third-world “protectorate” like Puerto Rico. Or it might impose sanctions on us as with North Korea or Cuba.

If any of the foregoing worst cases were to happen, Canada would have little problem identifying who our real enemy is; who is selling us, our digital footprints, our lives, and all that we value, on the cheap.

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