Online, they know all about you

Online, they know all about you

The December 20, 2018, order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs authorising 10 government agencies to access any information stored in any computer for monitoring, interception and decryption is very much reminiscent of the charter of the Information Awareness Office (subsequently renamed Total Information Awareness Programme, TIP for short) set up by the Pentagon in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks). Due to concerns of mass surveillance and loss of privacy, TIP was defunded, at least on paper. Fortuitously, this defunding has not been a serious obstacle since Facebook, which made its debut in February 2004, and Google have permanently altered the information-gathering landscape in the digital universe.

From a cynical perspective, wouldn’t it be more effective, both in terms of cost and time, if the Indian government were to purchase any and all information on its citizenry from these two companies? After all, they do have a large subscriber base and extremely detailed and up to date information on each subscriber is readily available. 

In today’s digital universe, freedom of choice and action is largely a figment of one’s imagination since every individual is merely a data point which can be extensively tracked in real-time and analysed for compliance and manipulation by corporations and governments alike, based on several criteria, including economic, political, geographical and social. The ramifications of such tracking express
themselves at the local, national and international levels in areas as diverse as employment, state sovereignty and security, healthcare, food, shelter and travel.

If corporate good is what benefits multinational corporations, like in IT sector, clearly the world cannot be operationally viewed as 193 sovereign states but only as a handful of totalitarian corporate states and numerous vassal states with flexible borders and obedient customers.

Personal data has now replaced oil as the most valuable and marketable commodity on the planet. If an individual’s private thoughts and behaviour are construed as intellectual prop-
erty, it stands to reason that a wholesale theft of such property is being committed on a daily and global basis by behemoths of the IT industry, and they are not being held accountable.

As of September 2018, just three US-based companies (Facebook, Google, Apple) and one China-based company (TenCent) had over a billion subscribers each. The privacy and security implications for the average Indian citizen of a scenario in which Aadhaar, Google, Facebook and Amazon data are merged and used in conjunction with Artificial Intelligence programmes such as facial recognition software are worth pondering.

Amazon has become the de facto broker of choice for the buying and selling of goods. The implications of such monopoly power in the global marketplace cannot be simply ignored even though Amazon can facilitate trade and offer employment. In the field of AI, decision-making is largely left to machine-learning algorithms, with little recourse for appeal, especially where the prejudices and predilections of the algorithms’ authors have been reflected in the algorithms. While the Indian economy has benefited from the outsourcing of IT jobs by the West, this cannot be sustained in the long run when more advanced AI and robotics technology enter the workplace.

That Amazon has begun using AI and robotics to automate the storage and retrieval of items in its warehouses across the globe is a harbinger of things to come. While it is easier to ban the sale of networking equipment from companies such as Huawei, it is far more difficult but perhaps more important to control software that can be detrimental to society at large.

In its January 2010 Citizens United decision, the US Supreme Court essentially granted corporations (and unions) constitutional protections by extending their free speech rights, enabling corporations to influence public opinion thro­ugh unrestricted spending on advertisements with indeterminate factual content. Given that unions have largely disappeared from the US workplace, corporate ‘personhood’ has placed citizens at a distinct disadvantage. 

It is time to treat any user’s online activities as proprietary data owned by the user and protected under national and international civil and criminal laws governing intellectual property. Such a perspective allows each user to decide how best to ‘license’ their data, whether the licence is exclusive, non-exclusive
or none, duration of the licence, how royalties are negotiated (for example, ‘per use’), etc.

Under this new perspective, each user is a corporate entity, albeit howsoever small. This new model of citizen ‘corporatehood’ has significant financial and legal implications for IT companies engaged in tracking users via search engines, social media and IoT devices. 

Companies, big and small, engaging in privacy violations should be subject to civil and criminal sanctions and there should be no such considerations as ‘too big to fail’. Alexa, are you listening? And you, Echo?

(The writer has over 35 years of experience in the field of computer science and information technology)