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Just 1’s and 0’s: Endangered Digital Privacy of our Times

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The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought the issue of privacy in a digital age close to our screens again. The article traces how such revelations point towards an increasingly dangerous world where our privacy is highly compromised.
Recently, Facebook has been in choppy waters with its stocks dipping and a “delete Facebook” campaign doing the rounds. Allegations by whistleblower Christopher Wiley showed how the US based data mining firm Cambridge Analytica harvested data from over 50 million American users of Facebook for “psychological profiling” during the Trump campaign. According to Wiley, he met Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, who orchestrated a deal between the firm and hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer that led to Wiley and his team engaging in what he calls “full-service propaganda”. By partnering with a Cambridge professor, Aleksandr Krogan who built an app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, the firm gained access to information on millions of Facebook users as well as their friends, unbeknownst to both Facebook and the users. However, this story is not new. Facebook had been informed of Cambridge Analytica back in 2015 and although it had demanded the data on users to be deleted, no follow-up measures had been taken after that. In a recent CNN interview, Zuckerberg apologised saying “We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data and if we can’t do that then we don’t deserve the opportunity to serve people.”

Even though some experts believe that the amount of people that the data was taken from could be overstated, it is nevertheless evident that there are some crucial aspects to such a story which makes it noteworthy. Firstly, it is evident that regardless of the reliability of Wiley’s claim we now inhabit an increasingly frightening world where even our private communications can be easily monitored. This is not a hyperbole as was seen back in 2013. Former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked millions of documents of the intelligence agency National Security Agency (NSA) of the US and its programs like PRISM, Upstream etc. that again collects bulk information from people both within the US and outside the US through their cell phones, emails, texts, and social media. Large companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Apple Inc. were also seen to be complicit in allowing the US government access to their servers. In an interview, Snowden called these companies the “surveillance sheriffs” of the NSA.
Secondly, the kind of information we have access to through our social media often determines our political views, our ideas and our actions, and when there are vested interests in spreading such information, the narrative gets coloured by propaganda.

In an interview with the Guardian, Wiley notes how Cambridge Analytica had a bunch of developers working to create content that would be receptive to the target population. He calls it “an unethical experiment where you’re playing with the psychology of an entire nation…in the context of a democratic process.” The firm, according to a report by The Quartz, also collaborated with various political parties during elections in India through its operation centres. The firm has its offices in ten Indian cities including Ahmedababd, Cuttack, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Indore, Kolkata, Patna, and Pune. While it is not unusual for political parties to partner with tech firms to “better understand the political environment”, when there is deliberate, reckless tampering with the private data of citizens to do this, there is a great possibility of the crumbling down of a shared sense of understanding, as Wiley observes.

Thirdly, we need to understand that our privacy is tenuous and free will might just be an illusion. Our social media profiles, when connected to the other countless apps we use, creates certain digital profiles which could provide key aspects of our identity, our personalities to anyone who might have access to them. In such a case, we need to hold our representatives and the authorities in charge responsible for the protection of our already diminishing privacy. The recent controversy regarding the Aadhaar card in India saw many experts casting doubt on the reliability of the biometrics used as well as the implementation of the scheme itself.
Lastly, our digital privacy determines our physical privacy. Cyber crimes over the years are testament to this fact. In such a case, there is a crucial need for an informed public debate on the responsibility that comes with allowing access to governmental and private agencies our information. There is also a greater responsibility on the part of us as citizens to have a healthy dose of scepticism (as Wiley says) while coming across any information in the media. The more doubtful we are, the more likely are we to make informed decisions.


Feature Image Credits: Time

Sara Sohail
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