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Facebook wants to bring people together. Google wants to make search more friendly. Amazon wants to make available everything at your doorstep. Jio wants everything available under one platform. Newsrooms want to ensure all the best news reach you, sitting at home. Websites and apps want to provide the best information to you, just a click or tap away. Even the government wants to merge and simplify your identities – one card for everything. “We are making the world simpler for you” – that’s what the technological advancements promise when they bring up something new. It is strange that in a commercial era where even social workgroups can’t be run without funding, the global conglomerates are providing services free of cost – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Jio, News channels, Websites, Mobile Apps, etc. Ever wondered how these corporates are able to not only meet their expenses but also become the most profitable ventures in the world?

Well, the Government consists of power-greedy people backed by powerful people who in turn become more powerful by providing more power to the power-greedy people. You probably already understand the power dynamics. However, how the corporates who take birth with the sole purpose of earning profits can provide services free of cost, is something worth a discussion. So let’s discuss it.

Your privacy is their product

If you think you are the customers of Google, Facebook, Amazon, News Channels, Apple, Jio, Websites, Apps and others, because you use their services and that’s why they can run, you probably got it wrong, all the way long! Yes, a few of these companies do earn from actual revenue by providing services to you. However, that’s nothing compared to the real activity and the earnings from the same. However, before we understand that, we first need to understand who we are in this whole conundrum – “Asset”. Yes, not customers, we are the assets of these companies and our privacy is their product. Not protecting our privacy, but using it – that’s what they sell.

Think of it this way – Astronomers work on heavily expensive space projects. If a project fails, the entire expenditure (the tax collected from the people) is worth nothing. That’s why, space research involves a lot of data mining, data projections, permutations, test trials and many other things that we even don’t know or understand. This is because a lot of time, money and human efforts are invested in every project and failure is disheartening. On similar lines, businesses invest heavily in their idea and their products. Unlike space programmes, the ultimate motive is profit and the invisible ethical line often gets forgotten. Businesses take the risk and therefore, they want to earn the well-deserved profit, however, the greed for guaranteed profits has grown over the years and thanks to technological advancement, has become possible as well. How? Same as the astronomers – mine data, project data, algorithms, trials, etc. However, data isn’t something that can be excavated from the ground or grown in the fields. The only way the data could be obtained is through surveying people. Ask some people to volunteer and collect their answers and use the data. However, businesses need larger sets of data and surveying is a costly affair with very less fruitful results. Thus, the days of surveys are gone, as technology collects data from you ‘with your permission’ without even you knowing it. Smart, isn’t it?

How technology has enabled data collection?

“I agree to the terms and conditions”, “I accept the website’s privacy policy”, “I accept the use of cookies on this website”, “I agree to see personalised advertisements” – you surely would be aware of this? No? Well, only if you don’t use the internet, mobiles, laptops etc. you would have not come across any of these. Otherwise, I can bet, you have agreed to all the above, several thousand times and maybe even more. Don’t worry, everything just happens in a blink because we have always been taught to surf the internet that way – Accept all terms and conditions, just click “Yes”, “Yes” and “Yes” and there you go – it is ready to use. And that’s how you legally agree with the companies to allow them to collect data about you and sell your privacy to others.

‘Cookies’ are delicious to eat, however, on the internet cookies are trackers deployed by websites that collect data about where you click, which page you visit, where you exit and where you spend more time. The purpose is to make your experience on the website or the mobile app more delightful the next time, for example, log in once and next time you won’t have to. However, the use of cookies, let’s call them ‘trackers’ has increased drastically over the last decade to collect information about literally everything you do on the website. Believe me, Facebook knows more about your likes and dislikes than you might know about yourself. Google knows everything you do in your entire day, things that even you might have forgotten about your schedule. The trackers are installed everywhere and the more products you use, the more trackers you feed and more the data is generated. So, when Facebook says ‘Write something here, it is asking you (the asset) to start your machinery and click at several places on the website, so that a lot of data would be generated on the backend.

The use of cookies is not just restricted to one website, but these cookies can also build a home on your browser and keep a watch on everything you do on other websites or other apps. You can check that in Facebook settings where it displays a list of advertisers with whom you have interacted, a list of advertisers based on mobile apps installed on your phone, list of advertisers who have shared data with Facebook claiming that you are that other website’s user as well. So when you buy something on Amazon, even Facebook knows that you buy from Amazon.

In the case of News channels, apart from collecting data from the website based on which news piece received more views and clicks, they also have information about which news programme was watched the most or when the Television Rating Points (TRP) was at their highest. In a bid to increase their audience (the assets of the business), the news that gets the most attention is displayed on top or more shows are build surrounding the topic. It is fine till here. What goes beyond ethical boundaries is when the news channels start fabricating news in a bid to sell the formula (just like an algorithm in the case of apps and websites) that they have developed based on their data mining. Every business wants to increase its assets, and in this case, you are the asset and they want to engage you as far as possible. So, then begins the telecast of fabricated news – if people are liking more ‘India vs Pakistan’, there you go – 20 shows added in the timeline this week. If people are getting bored of that, and instead ‘North Korea vs South Korea’ is getting more hits and viewership, the timeline is adjusted to include more shows on the topic. It doesn’t matter what piece of news is important!

How is big data used?

The use of data is the least concerned area for the companies in data selling businesses – there are millions of companies ready to buy the data and lumpsum amounts just to get the data. This is a business where customers need not be found, they are available everywhere. Even the assets required for the business (the people) are available everywhere. The only important thing is to make the asset work – show some beautiful images or clickbait titles and lure them into the setup and the asset would do the rest of clicking and tapping.

The data collected is stored by the company in databases. Which advertisements were clicked, what is the age, gender, location, etc. of such person, what are the other things that the same person has liked, how many likes does he do, which part of the website is clicked the most, what is the most searched item, how did he land on the page, what time of the day or day of the week the website or app was used, etc. While all companies claim that the data is anonymised and stored i.e. your name is not associated with it, however, there is no surety about these claims. Besides, the data contains everything except your name, so the concern still exists.

The databases are sold to other companies according to their needs. For example, a food delivery app would love to know what food photos are liked the most on social media, what food item is more talked about on the internet, what is the age group of such people, location-wise details, the genderwise details etc. This information would help them to choose which product to promote the most on their app or offer discounts so that people are lured into their app. Similarly, the food delivery app would also have huge data of what the people order, at what time, in which location what is ordered the most, etc. Such data can be used for targetting advertisements, controlling prices and a lot more. This is just a safe example over here to give an idea of how much data is collected and how it can be used. This is the information we know. The extent to which the data can be collected is a sign enough to scare us, as inappropriate use of such data or availability of such data in the wrong hands can result in a lot more awful situation.

‘Right to Privacy’ is a fundamental right

On August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court, in a historic judgement declared the right to privacy as a fundamental right protected under the Indian Constitution. The right to privacy hearings before the nine-judge bench concluded that it is unfortunate that the Government argued that privacy claims are only made by those who have done something wrong, which represents a common misconception of the meaning and value of the right to privacy. A lot can be harmed when our privacy is breached. There’s a reason why we draw curtains at home or keep private diaries. Think of celebrities who are surrounded by trackers (followers) all the time. Their privacy going for a toss can be seen 1,000 km away on a television box. The cookies on the websites are just the same except that they are invisible. There’s nothing to hide, yet we do not want our neighbours, or the Government, or the corporates to know what we do and when we do and how we live. The ‘nothing to hide’ misconception wrongfully equates privacy with secrecy, though the two are distinct concepts. Privacy is about the choice to withhold information, which others do not need to know. Secrecy, on the other hand, is withholding information that people may have a right to know.

How Aadhar linking makes privacy vulnerable

A few years ago, the Government projected aadhar as the game-changer. The Government started linking everything to aadhar. Some political leaders even wanted Facebook profiles to be linked and verified by Aadhar! The projected benefits of linking aadhar to many things were real as one universal recognition to access various services can make things simplified. Take opening bank accounts as an example which has become easier over years with a few taps an account can be opened. However, only a few spoke about the downsides of linking everything to aadhar. Firstly, the Government manages the aadhar. It is really difficult to believe that Governments would be able to protect aadhar from all threats when tech giants have failed in the past. Because when everything is linked to aadhar, the people with ill-intent would launch more attacks on the aadhar data, as the data is precious.

Facebook, Google and others have become valuable companies owing to the huge data generation capacity and the possession of huge data useful for various companies for data analytics and targetted marketing. When your mobile, gas, bank, income tax, Demat, school fees, properties and everything else gets linked to aadhar, imagine how valuable an asset the aadhar data would become. We already know how the powerful manage to bring new public policies in their company’s favour. How do we place trust on the Government (or the future Governments) that the data won’t be sold to such corporates?