Updated: Jun 6, 2021
Image credits: Telegraph
Privacy. Does it concern you? For sure, the issues related to privacy have been echoing around us for quite some time now. But ask yourself this question - are you concerned about your privacy? Do you EVEN have a choice? You might agree with the general perception that, yes, privacy is important and should not be infringed upon. But you don’t have control over it, do you? And perhaps the benefits the internet and social media provide us-economic and social, seems to tip the balance away from our concerns.
Do we really understand what privacy actually is and what could be the possible implications of neglecting it and leaving it at the hands of private corporations? Who is in charge of it? What is at stake? Does the government have a say? Are we willing to take part in the evolving conversation of privacy, or does it seem like a price worth paying for the returns of this invention called the internet? These are broad questions, and in today’s article, we try to address them by using the emerging feud between Apple and Facebook over privacy issues as an anchor.
UNDERSTANDING INFORMATION PRIVACY - INTERNET
Privacy as a concept precedes the internet. Aristotle once remarked: “Man is a social animal”. Rightly so, but the very same man, in our age, also aspires for privacy. Philosophically, the need for privacy arises because of certain emotions like comfortability and insecurity. There are things that you won’t feel comfortable sharing with anyone. Privacy was always a human need. However, in the post-internet era, it has become a huge issue demanding constant attention and deliberation on the parts of governments, private corporations and, of course, the citizens. Why has it suddenly become so crucial? For years no one seemed to care, and now everywhere you see, articles you read (this one as well) and videos you see, people, in general, are talking about their privacy. To understand that, we must know how the internet works.
Everybody knows the importance of the internet. It has literally become our lifeline. But just like everything else, it has its downsides too. The concerns related to online privacy are some of them. But what is exactly the Internet? Do we understand its fundamental functioning? The very core issue at the heart of the debate around privacy concerns the way the internet works. Reducing it to its basic principles, it is one ginormous network undertaking the transfer of data. All sorts of data. This is the correlation that I want us to understand - the correlation between the internet and our data.
Our privacy concerns emerge out of how our data is managed by the stakeholders-corporations and now even governments-say the case of Edward Snowden, but more on that later. But what could go wrong with that? And perhaps it is worth the price for the countless number of ways in which the Internet seems to empower us and facilitate our daily lives, right? Not till we find some of its extreme implications. Let us find out.
APPLE & FACEBOOK: WHAT’S THE FEUD ALL ABOUT
One of the world's two foremost tech giants have now developed two divergent views on matters related to privacy, and not only that, they are in the battleground implementing their respective policies. But before we dive into that, let us consider the background which is compelling them to undertake measures. The Internet, when it arrived, was an abstract concept in itself. It needed a medium to be channelled through the masses. Apps (applications) were the answer. And as stated above, if the internet is data transfer, these apps needed data to function. Pay attention over here. This is exactly where problems arise. As the internet became a wide stream, more and more aspects of our lives were loaded onto it. Fast-forward to these days, consider your smartphones. It knows the locations you visit, the things you browse, people you talk to, emails you browse, the ideology you confine with and what not.
Who holds all of this information? The apps. Google and Facebook being some of them. And mind you, there are countless others-corporations worth billions of dollars in charge of your data. Consider that. The core business model of these corporations is that they share some of these data points with other companies aiming at you for selling their products and services. Seems like a match made in heaven. Now, this is not to suggest that this model has not served us-the customers. It still does, and perhaps quite effectively, products finely catered to our needs are suggested through advertisements. We get the products, they get the money, and it’s a win-win.
All that is fine, but do we have any sort of control over our data? Do we have a say about how it is to be managed? The fact is that we don’t. When we agree to their terms and conditions, we entrust these corporations to managing the vast amount of data they collect from us in return for their supposedly free services. Notice that we entrust them, and by that logic, they are entitled to maintain that. It has been alleged that they’ve been mismanaging our data by sharing it with third parties for even more profits. CEOs like Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey have been questioned on several grounds by the US Congress and EU officials.
It all started with iOS 14, where Apple introduced an app privacy function that allowed all of its users to know what all data was being extracted from them by their applications. For some context, it made it clear that while the new messaging app SIGNAL only demanded the phone number from its users, the more widely used and facebook owned application-Messenger was extracting several data points like physical address, financial information, photos and videos, purchase history and a lot more. Apple has gone a step further than this. Through iOS 14.5, it has introduced a new function called ‘App Tracking Transparency’, which for the very first time allows users with a choice whether they want a specific app to access, track and share the data valuable to advertisers or not. This strikes at the core business model of Facebook, and they have taken a clear and opposite stance towards it, citing Apple’s ignorance towards the interests of small business. The question is whose interests are to be valued more-ours or the business’. Also, are we the customers or the product for all these companies profiting from our data?
Implications of data being mismanaged are immense. Let us consider some massive real-life events for a clearer picture. The scandal of Cambridge Analytica shocked the world. Led by its CEO Alexander Nix, it claimed to use neuroscience principles to precisely deliver advertisements for its clients. They worked on campaigns like the TRUMP Presidential campaign and Brexit. The scandal was that Facebook allegedly sold or shared the data of its users with Cambridge Analytica, which was then further used for the benefits of their clients. The company itself claimed to have a whopping 5000 data points on every American voter. If you wish to know more, you can watch Netflix’s documentary ‘The Great Hack’. Several questions emerge out of this scenario.
Now it’s pretty debatable to precisely calculate their impact on events like Brexit or the TRUMP campaign. However, what if they did have a significant effect? This portrays a dangerous picture where our data points can be used to determine our political leanings. Then eventually, we can be fed with selectively and fine-tuned advertisements to try and affect our ultimate voting choice. If someone can make us choose something or even influence our decisions towards a direction they want, then that’s close to hacking our minds. Let that sink in. And the data harvesting industry is worth billions of dollars. What if more and more corporations start joining the league in the absence of strict and ever-evolving privacy rules.
Leave corporations for a while. But are sovereign governments entitled to the data of their citizens? Even for reasons like national security? These are broad questions brought to the limelight by the case of Edward Snowden. A whistleblower computer scientist who worked in top-secret agencies of the US government like the NSA revealed the government’s mass surveillance programme. Citizens were being tracked for purposes like national security. Them not knowing about it, of course. This is debatable and needs some attention on the part of our whole society. It seems as if everyone is after our data for purposes ranging from earning profits to ensuring the country’s security. And some reasons are better than others but then does it allow any of them to use it as if it belonged to them and not to us.
Who exactly owns our data? Of course, us. But then, if that’s the case, we don’t seem to have a say or control over it. Who stores our data, and what are the incentives and penalties for them not to misuse it. These are some questions we haven’t addressed effectively.
As more and more aspects of our lives become ‘online’, we need some serious deliberation on the part of all the stakeholders concerned-us being the foremost, in deciding the course of this emerging issue of privacy.
BY PRATYAKSH KUMAR
CO-FOUNDER THE GEOSTRATA