• Your personal information is yours to divulge and not anybody’s business until the very moment you decide that it is. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
From access to our metadata to over-sharing pharmacists, the free flow of information can have some terrible future results, writes Helen Razer.
By
Helen Razer

12 Oct 2016 - 2:44 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2016 - 3:21 PM

I owe someone $US79.95. The annual overdue account served to remind me not only that I am pretty rotten at paying bills on time, but that it was this week last year that metadata retention became mandatory in Australia. This charge is for a virtual private network (VPN) which I use to mask my online activity. And, no. This doesn’t mean I’m some Tor-crazed criminal who plots to bring down the west with pornography and pipe bombs. It just means I like my privacy.

Everybody likes their privacy. This is why curtains remain a best-selling household item. Many people need their privacy. This is why even the man who passed data retention into law, Malcolm Turnbull, said that journalists were entitled, even advised, to get a VPN. This is why the United Nations declared privacy a basic human right and why some of us bores are still banging on about a state intrusion into our lives that is expensive, absurd and has failed so abundantly in other nations to stop Tor-crazed criminals, the law was overturned.

Who in genuine heck can say that they have never done anything embarrassing?

I know the argument, “I have done nothing wrong, therefore I have nothing to fear”. But, even leaving aside the real possibility that your data, which includes the record of everywhere you’ve been, could “prove” your complicity in a crime you did not commit, who in genuine heck can say that they have never done anything embarrassing?

Sunshine is not always the best disinfectant. Sometimes, it’s a terrible pollutant. If, for example, you have a mental illness, you might want to keep that information only to yourself. The analysis of your data—you visited an info page, you went to a support group—can reveal this fact. If, of course, you are confident to declare that you have been diagnosed, that’s great. But it’s your information to divulge and not anybody’s business until the very moment you decide that it is.

It was years ago that I disclosed a mental illness diagnosis. I did it very publicly and even wrote a book on the matter. I would like to tell you that this was a glorious and liberating moment which improved my life in a trice. In fact, it turned out to be the worst professional decision I ever made, because no one wants to employ a person who has publicly said, “Some days, I just can’t get out of bed”. This does not just derive from stigma, but the demands of the workplace as they are currently arranged. My boss could have been as nice as pie, but he was still in the business of making profit from a labour I had openly said that some days, I would be unable to provide.

The free flow of information, even if voluntary, can have some terrible future results.

This is not to dissuade any courageous soul from disclosing the fact of their mental illness. It is just to say that the free flow of information, even if voluntary, can have some terrible future results. And I recalled last weekend in my local pharmacy when this awful truth first struck me.

It was in the year 2001 at a chemist in Newtown’s King Street that I was waiting for my Zoloft. My depression notwithstanding, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself about the fact of a best-selling book. “You’re so brave, Helen,” I said to Helen as she racked up royalties from the product of her pain. Then, I heard from across the shop, “Helen Razer. Your antidepressants are waiting”.

In this place, I was not a best-selling author who enjoyed the privilege of applause. There was no one to say, “You’re so courageous! Keep doing that work!” I was just an everyday person in an everyday place facing the everyday problem of violated privacy.

Then, I heard from across the shop, “Helen Razer. Your antidepressants are waiting”.

Last weekend, my chemist April said from across the floor, “Miss Razer, your pimple cream is waiting.” I said, “Miss April, your book on proper manners is ready”. I explained to April that the fact of my midlife pimples was not her information to disclose. She said that I didn’t have that many pimples. I said that was because of the ointment. She said isn’t that nice, and I said, April, you’re missing my pimply point.

April has now grasped the point and has vowed never, not even in a mostly empty shop, to holler out identifying details of someone’s rash, depression or contraceptive lapse. By Tuesday, I even got April quite hopped up about metadata retention law. She has promised to write a letter to the Attorney-General using the case of embarrassing midlife pimples to explain the importance of privacy.

In the meantime, I owe someone $US79.95.

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