Following the exposé of the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (CA) link and how users can be manipulated, there was a furore across the world. Unfortunately, Facebook and CA are not the only two entities that are trading user data. Professor Shoshana Zuboff (from Harvard Business School) refers to the practice adopted by every player as surveillance capitalism in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.
Professor Zuboff lays bare the unprecedented form of power and the quest by power-hungry and resourceful entities to control our behaviour. “We are at a critical juncture in the confrontation between the vast power of giant high-tech companies and government, the hidden economic logic of surveillance capitalism, and the propaganda of machine supremacy that threaten to shape and control human life. Will the brazen new methods of social engineering and behaviour modification threaten individual autonomy and democratic rights and introduce extreme new forms of social inequality? Or will the promise of the digital age be one of individual empowerment and democratisation?” she asks.
Your personal information is very valuable and that is why you are lured and even threatened (by government!) to part with your private information and data. Sometimes, it is for security purposes. For example, when you use netbanking facility, the bank may record your IP address to know you are accessing its website from a safe (domestic) location. However, many, especially, those ‘freebee’ providers, can collect several other bits of information from you. You may know now, but Facebook has been collecting since a long time data from our posts, likes, photos, what we type or even what we delete without posting, and things that we do while on its website. All this information is then analysed and sold to buyers at a premium. In the US alone, there are around 3,000 data-brokers and analytics firms that are collecting, storing, analysing and then selling specific profiles of individuals, for a fee. The data is used for creating targets.
Still, I will be happy if the data is used simply to expose us to products and services. Unfortunately, the CA episode tells us how the specific profiles are targeted with a manipulative aim to alter election outcome. For example, if your profile, based on your posts, reveals that you may vote against the ruling party, then you can be systematically targeted before the election with an aim to change your opinion. Another issue is mass surveillance. With your specific profile and information like your location, people or entities you deal with on a regular basis, you can be under surveillance 24x7.
Aadhaar and the repeated attempts to link it to everything in your life is one such technique. Another tool being spread across some countries like India and China is installing closed circuit TV (CCTV) at every nook and corner. Without a real-time monitoring and quick action, CCTV are useless and, at most, can help in a probe after the incident (which I doubt, too, due to use of low-resolution cameras and insufficient lights).
China has been building what it calls ‘the world's biggest camera surveillance network’. Many of the cameras are fitted with artificial intelligence, including face-recognition technology. In December 2017, BBC’s John Sudworth tested the system. It took the Chinese authorities just seven minutes to locate and apprehend Sudworth. Mass surveillance is a reality today.
We are not against technology or technological advancement. The issue is while blindly embracing new technologies like artificial intelligence, and machine algorithms, we are losing something more important, the human angle. As Professor Zuboff rightly says, the stark issue at hand is whether we will be the masters of information and machines, or its slaves.