Personal freedoms, right to privacy and secrecy have been long compromised willingly by ourselves, robbing us of our right to protest now.
‘Face’ and ‘book’ may be two ordinary words in the English language, but combine them together, and suddenly, they become a cause of great embarrassment not only to the founder of this iconic social media platform, but also to political parties across the spectrum.
The over 40 billion-dollar social media platform started 14 years ago, and has been in the news many times for the right reasons. This time, however, it is caught on the wrong foot, thanks to a foot-in-mouth statement by one of its own aides — a research scholar from Cambridge University. He was reportedly contracted by a data mining company to provide services for political parties during the US elections, and later, during the Brexit referendum.
Data mining as a strategic tool
‘Data mining’ or ‘data discovery’ is basically an elaborate process of collecting and storing large quantities of information about people, their likes and dislikes, preferences and views on various issues concerning day-to-day life. The process involves analysing data, enquiring into its concealed patterns using intricate algorithms, and categorising this information into easily usable tools for decision-making in business and other strategic areas of operation.
All over the world, this process has been put to great use by commercial establishments, service providers and corporate strategists, to increase business, provide better service, and more importantly, cut costs without compromising with the quality of service.
With politics becoming one of the biggest commercial enterprises ever known to human beings, it is little wonder that politicians made a beeline to data mining white-collar workers all over the globe. One such company, Cambridge Analytica, is believed to have created a database of almost one-fourth of US voters, thereby providing valuable insights into their likes and dislikes, and more importantly, their voting preferences.
Elections have become a mind game involving war-like strategy and use of technology to assess the mood of the voters. In the good old days of door-to-door campaign and promising the moon through high decibel oratorical skills, voters had the privilege of keeping their cards close to their chest. With the introduction of technology, elections have become manageable, especially in a country of India’s size and magnitude. But the use of devious data-collecting methods has rendered the election process more strategy than a democratic obligation.
What right to privacy?
The union information technology minister has taken this issue of devious methodology seriously, especially after it was revealed that the main opposition party, the Congress, had reportedly contracted one of the persons highly qualified in this technique.
Now, legally speaking no political party can be prevented from using any data mining technique to better its prospects in elections. But in this particular case, the consequences of the information available, if true, assumes scary proportions. A huge amount of personal information made available through the use of Facebook has been shared with the data mining enterprise, ostensibly for a price.
While the trading of data can be termed as normal business of ‘material and information collected with consent’, when we sign into these services of ‘convenient communication’, little do we realise that we are willingly handing over our personal data to the service provider. After using these communication networking websites and establishing ‘groups’ and ‘circles’ of family and friends, we reserve none of those rights that we inherited to as a result of the French Revolution and Magna Carta. Personal freedoms, right to privacy and secrecy have been long compromised willingly by ourselves, robbing us of our right to protest now.
If one of the many websites now trades information about us, remember, we have given it blanket permission to do so. What is worse still is that there is no way to undo this damage.
Can anything change?
Subsequent to the stern warning by the government of India, the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, has reportedly promised to use artificial intelligence tools to check the leakage of information from his platform. It is difficult to believe that such a check would be possible. It is like shutting the stable door after the horses have bolted.
The government’s decision to initiate a high-level probe into the analytics carried out by some social media sites is a welcome step. The probe needs to be time-bound, and also be given a mandate to suggest actions to plug loopholes in existing laws to guard unsuspecting website users against becoming victims of data providers. Unlike cigarette packets, there is no way to print a ‘statutory warning’ on social media sites about data theft risk.
But given the fact that people no longer have control over technology — that they have become subservient to it — it is futile to assume that that such high-level probes would result in providing any insulation from data theft and surreptitious manipulation in the run up to 2019 elections.
The author is a security and strategic affairs commentator and former editor of Organiser.