Privacy violations, the rise of Big Data and Orwell’s premonition
In George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984, the fictional omniscient entity "Big Brother" seemed like an absurd possibility even a decade back. For an all-knowing being to exist in a society that had access to a constant flow of information was not common in everyday narratives of the time. Fast track to 2019 and what we have is an emergence of Big Data that is slowly helping us spiral towards an eerily similar reality. There is no shock factor to this phenomenon. The biggest source of this gigantic accumulation of data is the people themselves.
Facebook, despite its privacy-breaching scandals is exponentially growing, with 2.32 billion monthly users as of December 31 last year. While it managed to land itself in user security controversy and outrage, its revenues have only increased. Never has any enterprise before managed to constantly accumulate data of over two billion people. It did so by fostering a culture of sharing among the digital nomads—when we experience something new, we tend to capture or record it, when we record it, we upload it and finally we share it with our own selection of audience. But is it shared only within our selected circle? The latest events that have occurred suggest otherwise.
Last month, in a courtroom debate in San Francisco, lawyers defending Facebook in a litigation issuing from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, declared, rather too matter-of-factly, what we have been feeling apprehensive about—users should have no rational expectation of privacy from social media. Further arguments ensued to and fro where it was, revealed that the tech giant treats privacy as something binary, rather than nuanced. The moment users choose to share their posts with others, their privacy gets compromised. If that is the case, the option of being able to tweak one's desired selection of audience should be announced as redundant. This new turn of events definitely added more fuel to the controversy that originated since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Just a year back, Mark Zuckerberg sat in front of members of both houses of Congress, uttering the word privacy numerous times and each time, emphasising on how the company policy advocates for the privacy of its users. This year, he had penned down a 3,000-word monologue—the foundations of which is based on personal privacy—where he promised to reconstruct the image of his company. But with that still fresh in memory, his lawyers are delivering contradicting statements. Both these scenarios emerge from the same company at stake but both cannot be the truth.
According to a Ted Talk by Yuval Noah Harari, best-selling author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, liberalism is currently under threat given the direction of information collection and dissemination is being steered towards by these "Silicon Valley Prophets". Liberalism, in theory, is based on the capacity of people's free will. The intricacies of our society play out in a way that prioritises the freedom of willpower and decision-making over everything else—customers are always right and voters can and will choose whoever they deem is worthy, but, now with the unification of biotech and infotech coupled with immeasurable data being amassed from billions of global users, a new structure is being constructed that would not only be able to identify our emotions but will also manipulate them. Information will be tailored on an individual basis that will influence their decisions and eventually question the freedom of choice. The classic example can be drawn from when Facebook exposed the data of its 87 million users to Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy firm that was involved with Trump's presidential campaign. Since then, legal and ethical questions have arisen while the firm was held culpable for influencing the democratic agenda.
This event highlighted the loopholes in social media privacy policies, the terms of which we agree to without the slightest hesitation. Providing a mere review on a restaurant or liking a page on social media would trigger an algorithmic pattern exclusive to each individual. Users fail to realise that every click is leaving behind a digital footprint that contributes to an inconspicuous process of data curation that is not just utilised to suggest advertisements but is being exploited for profit maximisation of power-hungry corporations and/or to further the agenda of other political entities. It is almost as if people are being made to become comfortable with the idea of social experimentation despite transparency and accountability being largely absent.
The Silicon Valley giants have furthered the use of these patterns to permeate all online activities of users. One might simply ask, "Why is my personal data so important?" But these tech companies do not really care about individualistic personal data or the mundane details of one's life. What they are interested in is the metadata from which physiological portfolios can be drawn and used to manipulate behaviour. The Federal Trade Commission has recently decided to impose a fine of five billion dollars on Facebook due to the earlier privacy violations—a penalty that falls flat against the repercussions it has instigated while the amount is being compared to a mere "parking ticket" for a corporation of this magnitude.
Data collection and its merger with complimentary technology have provided human beings with countless noteworthy privileges and contributions. Although, the term Big Data, has a negative connotation to it, we cannot deny how our modern state of affairs have thrived in this digital ecosystem. Yet, there are no benefits without costs. Social media platforms are now like an unregulated marketplace that needs intervention from all stakeholders—be it the political commanders, the pioneers of the tech companies and, most importantly, the users themselves. The whole business model would collapse if enough number of users withdraw or unsubscribe from such domains. Likewise, the human race today is also heavily reliant on these platforms. It appears that both parties involved here are at stake, and will have to meet at a common ground. The recent endemic of privacy violations must not be treated as just a threat anymore but also as a wakeup call for this era.
Iqra L Qamari is a student of economics at North South University and is an intern at The Daily Star.