Data collection is a lethal weapon and it’s already breaching our privacy
Have you ever been on a WhatsApp call with a friend where you casually mentioned a product and suddenly had your Facebook feed full of advertisements for that same product? If that is the case, then you are not alone.
This is merely one of the many tactics companies use to spy on our online activity. Cookies, browsing history, and purchase patterns are being constantly tracked to find our unique habits and preferences.
The world of George Orwell's 1984 might seem far removed from our status quo. However, the inception of the internet has made that reality a lot less far-fetched. Every second we spend on social media, every link we click, and every product we purchase pushes us closer to a dystopian world without privacy, much like Orwell envisioned all those years back.
What happens to all this data? A lot of it is used to curate targeted advertising. This may sound harmless but it can be incredibly exploitative. For instance, skin-care advertisers specifically target vulnerable young teens which can often be detrimental to their self-image and physical health. Moreover, politicians can take advantage of this by making campaign ads specifically designed to strike at the insecurities and biases of various diasporas within their voter base.
The same politician could send one message to one demographic of voters while presenting an entirely different stance to another group of people. This allows politicians to effectively game the system and manipulate the perceptions of their voter base. This strategy has gained popularity with Biden and Trump spending a combined total of more than USD 175 million on Facebook ads during the 2020 presidential race.
More importantly, there is always the risk of our data falling into the wrong hands. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2015 is a prime example of this. A political consulting firm managed to gain access to the personal Facebook profiles of 87 million users without their consent. These types of data breaches violate people's right to privacy and can easily become a conduit for even more sensitive information getting hijacked, like bank account numbers and credit card details.
Yet, there is very little we can do about this.
As of January, there are 5.16 billion internet users – a number that is growing each day. Internet integration is also being embraced across the board and a lot of government services, like applying for the Bangladeshi National Identity Card (NID), are now being done through online portals.
Being on social media too is no longer a choice but a necessity for most communication and networking purposes. Thus, it is almost impossible to untangle ourselves from the sticky mesh of the world wide web. Furthermore, data privacy is notoriously hard to regulate since it operates in an intangible digital realm. The combination of all these factors makes it a Herculean task to protect our private information. And whether we like it or not, the internet is here to stay for many decades to come. Till then, we remain unwilling cogs in the well-oiled machinery of big data.
1. Techcrunch.com (June 4, 2021). TikTok just gave itself permission to collect biometric data on US users, including 'faceprints and voiceprints'
2. TheMarkup.org (October 29, 2020). How We Analyzed the Cost of Trump's and Biden's Campaign Ads on Facebook.
3. New York Times (April 4, 2018). Facebook Says Cambridge Analytica Harvested Data of Up to 87 Million Users.
4. Statista.com (February 7, 2023). Number of internet and social media users worldwide as of January 2023.
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