What Data Privacy is and why is it important

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The purpose of this article is to explain what Data Privacy is and why is it important in layman’s terms. Of late most of us have seen a spurt of emails with the subject line mentioning updates to Data privacy policy. In my case the first one came from Xiaomi – since I own a phone of theirs, then another mail came from Google and now I see even my website hosting provider has issued one!

If you watch the news, you must have seen the videos of Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook appearing before a committee of the US Senate last month. The events that led to this senate hearing occurred a couple of year’s back. It was a U.K based political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica that triggered this sudden avalanche of interest in Data Privacy. Cambridge Analytica, combined data mining, data brokerage and data analytics to extract information from Facebook users.

The method adopted by Cambridge Analytica was rather simple. Through an application called ‘thisisyourdigitallife’ it asked Facebook users if it could collect their data. About 270,000 users volunteered and gave permission to the application to collect and share their data. Now with this approval and in violation of Facebook’s policies Cambridge Analytica gained access to the friend networks of these 270,000 users. Cambridge Analytica using this application illegally gained data on about 50 million users who were in the friend’s network of these 270,000. Remember that a majority of these 50 million, had not explicitly allowed Cambridge Analytica permission to access their personal data.
The data collected basically related to the user behaviour and browsing patterns. It analysed political leaning of the user and accordingly targeted segments of Facebook users with what it called ‘Strategic Communications’. While many mainstream political scientists question CA’s claims about the effectiveness of its methods of targeting voters the matter was considered serious enough by most governments of the world to suspend its operations in their territories.

By its own admission Cambridge Analytica declared that they were involved in 44 US political races in 2014. In 2015, CA admitted it performed data analysis services for Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign in the US. In 2016, CA claimed to have worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as well as the ‘Leave.EU-campaign’ for the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership. CA’s role in those campaigns has been controversial and is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations in both countries. As the bad press and negative publicity from all these disclosures reverberated across the world, on 1 May 2018, Cambridge Analytica and its parent company filed for insolvency and closed operations.

Now does that mean that all is well and the world is a better place to live in… well actually no. There are still some huge monsters out there and they are not hiding under the bed but still using your data and making money out of it. The worst part of it is that we are willingly providing our approval to these ‘monsters’ to collect and use our personal data.

Most of us own smart phones. Every time we install an application on our phones it innocently asks us permission to access the camera, microphone, contact list, folders etc, etc. We have become so used to these requests that we hardly read them and approve the request. That is when the problem starts.
Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple are the giants in the tech world. Today we have reached a stage where we are totally dependent on their application, products and tools. If you do not believe me try this simple test. Try removing or not using google products on your android phone for a day. This would mean not using Gmail, You Tube, Google Maps amongst other applications which you downloaded from Google Play. It would be next to impossible given our dependence on Google and other such companies for most of our mundane internet work. Be it sending or receiving emails, browsing websites, purchasing or selling products online we are puppets in the hands of these massive tech giants.

Now consider this scenario. Assume you want to buy a shoe. You do not have the time to go to the local shoe store, or maybe the design or make you are looking for is not available locally. The first thing you would do is open up your browser and search for the brand of your choice. We would search through Google or check out the options available on Amazon or other similar online retailers. Once you have searched you may or may not decide to purchase the shoe online. Suppose in our scenario you do not go ahead with the online purchase but decide to purchase it locally. As far as you are concerned the matter of the shoe is closed, right? Well the internet and these massive companies do not think so. After this, for a few weeks if you are observant you will notice that as you log on to any web site, you would see advertisements for shoes showing up on the sides of the pages you are browsing. This goes on for a few days. Ever wondered why that happens?

This happens because the information that you had browsed the web, searching for shoes is captured by your browser and passed on by the Googles and Amazon’s of the world. They in turn pass it on to the various web sites which sell these products. IN this way these advertisements customized for your requirements start appearing on to your web browser. If you happen to notice the ad and go ahead and click on it that takes you to the shop where you can buy the shoes. In case you make a purchase then a commission from the sale goes to all these intermediaries who essentially tricked you into buying their product. In essence the internet search engines and business portal make billions out of millions of users like you and me. Now how does that feel? Do you feel cheated or you are ok with being spied upon?

In the above scenario it was a simple shoe now imagine if you happened to browse a porn site or purchased some lingerie online. As a human being you have every right to do that. The problem is that information is also passed on to all the relevant companies who can target you in future. Imagine the case where the same PC or Laptop is shared between multiple people in the same house. How would you like it if your children or grandparent suddenly find their web site plastered by ads for such products? Another slightly dangerous aspect of this breach of data privacy is that organisations where you apply for jobs may want to check you background through your internet searches. The fact that you have in the past browsed such sites will make you un-fit to get jobs.

Then there is another side to this whole story. A lot of website propound extremist ideologies and display information about how to make explosives or propound violence. This browsing information has in the past been used by police organisations to track and arrest operatives from perpetrating acts of violence and mayhem. By tracking onsite browsing data, intelligence organisations have been able to find such criminals before they could put their plans into action. There are specific group who search the web for people who visit child- pornography sites or have such information. Such investigative work has resulted in the arrest across the world. While this is a positive aspect of such data collection it should be remembered that there is a fine line between protection and harassment and too often government agencies tend to overstep their limits and monitor citizens above and beyond what is permissible. Examples are the extreme cases of censorship applied by the Chinese government.
All this bring us to the question as to what is it that we as citizens do to protect ourselves from such blatant violation of our privacy. One way is read carefully the pop-up that come up when you install applications on your cell phones. If you feel that it is too intrusive do not accept it. Find alternative applications and products that respect your privacy and do not intrude into your private life. We will be publishing details of such applications and tools on this web site. Keep reading and stay safe!