Mark Zuckerburg


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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Introduced merely ten days ago, Facebook’s Graph Search didn’t get the best market reception: the company’s shares plummeted by almost 6 percent following its announcement. It did, however, set the tech world abuzz.

Touted as Facebook’s “third pillar” after newsfeed and timeline by CEO Mark Zuckerburg himself, it is, simply put, a personalized search engine that sifts out results from within the website, at present available only in the beta version to select users of American English. There are some visible changes in the webpage’s organization and display, but nothing too hard to keep pace with.

Here’s how it works: You can look up your friends through customized searches based on the information they’ve made public, through phrases such as “Friends from Delhi University who subscribe to DU Beat” or “Friends in New Delhi who play golf”.

So how good is Facebook’s latest offing? Tech observers, analysts as well as users stand divided in their opinions. While some view this foray as an avant-garde move that incorporates even search as a social activity, others show mild acceptance and reject any apparent threat to traditional search engines. Yet far too many ordinary users remain concerned about privacy settings.

The issue of privacy was addressed in the introductory press conference itself, with Zuckerburg giving the assurance that the data unearthed through a graph search would not bring up any content that has not previously been made public. But in case you still haven’t made changes to your profile, pages you’ve liked and tags following the major revamp last year, it would serve you well to do so before Graph Search takes the scene and digs out something even you may have forgotten about.

Next, what about the threat that Graph Search may pose to traditional search engines such as Google Search? It is unlikely that it may ever be able to displace Google off its throne. After all, it mostly draws search content from within your connections on Facebook and Bing as an extension, therefore with an altogether different target from Google’s broad search.

On the other hand, it helps you build on these already established social connections, effectively assuming the same importance as that of word-of-mouth in the daily non-virtual setting. And in doing so, goes beyond anything else we’ve seen thus far. You want to find friends to accompany you to a Coldplay concert next month? Graph Search comes to your aid by displaying friends who you may be able to get on board.

Graph Search, therefore, might just turn out to be the key to recover all those losses that Facebook made upon going public last year. It is indeed a great stride ahead in the realm of social communication and media, provided it extends its focus beyond people, photos and places. Only then are Google, Foursquare and LinkedIn likely to get a serious run for their money in the future.


Tanya Dua
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