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Connectivity is crucial, but how do we protect privacy?

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Urvashi Aneja :
The vulnerability of information and technology infrastructures is becoming more visible and alarming by the day. Earlier this year, two separate malware outbreaks - WannaCry and Petya - affected hundreds of thousands of people and organisations around the world. WannaCry crippled over 230,000 computers across 150 countries, with the UK's National Health Service, Spain's phone giant Telefónica and Germany's state railways among those hardest hit. Thousands of machines running on Windows, including ATMs, ticketing machines, hospitals and numerous industrial control systems across the globe were also compromised. Petya also affected operations at India's largest container port JNPT, in Mumbai; data put out by Symantec suggests that India was the worst affected country in Asia.
Researchers initially blamed the shutdown on ransom-ware - which seeks to make money by holding data hostage unless the victim pays a hefty ransom fee. But soon after, a bleaker conclusion emerged - that the malware was a 'wiper' with the objective of permanently destroying data. The aim, in other words, was to create chaos. Earlier this year, data of 17 million Zomato users was stolen in India and supposedly re-sold on the Dark Web. An IBM-Ponemon Institute 2017 study notes that the average cost of data breach in India has grown from Rs 97.30 million in 2016 to Rs 110 million in 2017. And, as a report by the Centre for Internet and Society, New Delhi, notes, the Aadhaar numbers of over 130 million people and bank account details of about 100 million have been leaked through government portals in India because of poor security practices.
At the same time, human dependency on these very systems is increasing. At an individual level, Fitbit and other such devices tell users if they are walking enough, eating too much or sleeping soundly. Many people would be lost without Google Maps, even in cities they call home. As technology becomes more invisible and omnipresent, and interactions more seamless - think Alexa or Siri - the dependency will only increase. At a social level, people already increasingly rely on social media platforms to make friends, find jobs, decide where to go on holiday and even make electoral choices. For many, social media is the primary portal to the internet. With the Internet of Things, 26 billion devices will be connected around the globe - smart appliances will communicate with each other and preemptively respond to user preferences, and public utilities will be integrated and made responsive to population movement and consumption patterns. The dependency is so great that some studies have noted the rise of 'digital amnesia' - people are beginning to use their computer devices as extensions of their brains and in the process, are ready to forget important information in the belief that it can be immediately retrieved from a digital device. Such dependency amid such vulnerability seems unwise.
Indeed, data is the new oil. A staggering 90 per cent of the world's data has been created in the past four years. When the dot-com bubble burst in the late 1990s-early 2000s, Silicon Valley desperately needed a new business model. Then, in 2001, the World Trade Centre was attacked in New York, convincing the US government that its traditional methods of intelligence gathering were no longer working.
Growing amounts of data and technological advances have now ushered in an era of 'Big Data', allowing advertisers to not only provide curated product suggestions, but also predict present and future preferences and capacities.
As people create their digital selves - making profiles, listing habits and preferences, choosing to 'like' and 'retweet' certain items - they allow business to extract value from their preferences, personality, lifestyle, relationships and ambitions. Social media presence has itself been commoditised by companies that measure influence on social networks and give chosen users 'perks', or free products from various brands, ostensibly piggybacking on the users' 'reach'. Facebook is unsurprisingly a prime staging ground and profiteer in the surveillance economy.
Technology companies also adjust pricing and product promotions on the basis of past buying history and known traits - Amazon, for example, differentially prices goods depending on pin code and expected income level. Last September, Google received a patent on technology that lets a company dynamically price electronic content. For instance, it can push the base price of an e-book up if it determines that a shopper is more likely to buy that particular item than an average user; conversely, it can adjust the price down as an incentive if the user is judged less likely to purchase.
The top five data storage facilities are in the US; and more than half of the world's rentable cloud storage is controlled by four major corporations - Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Google, each of which adopts a similar global pattern of server farms. India is thus one of the largest exporters of data worldwide, and with rural India being ushered into the digital economy via social media platforms, on shared devices and often without knowledge of, or access to, privacy software, this trend is poised to continue.
So, as TV news channels report on the 'most-watched videos online' and hashtags are the new symbols of protests across the world, the online and offline worlds are getting increasingly enmeshed. Governments are furthering this enmeshment as they digitise governance services and make "citizenry" conditional on digital enrolment. But this system is deeply fragile and vulnerable to external shock and disruption, and this is without even bringing in the geopolitics of cyber security. And the real rot lies within - people are dependent on a system in which they are themselves the labour, in which their subjectivities and relationships are being commoditised and sold back to them.
Where is this headed? Probably a tiered internet, where the rich can afford secure internet, accessed through VPN networks and patched with the latest browser extensions to keep hackers, trackers and advertisers at bay. This is already happening of course, with most major newspapers now offering either a monthly subscription option or a free service with advertisements; the paid-for content is typically of much better quality as well. The rich will also insulate themselves from day-to-day digital dependencies; many in Silicon Valley send their children to tech-free schools and digital detox programmes are booming.
The masses, on the other hand, will be unable to afford their freedom or privacy and will continue to perform digital labour - accessing the internet through insecure free servers. Without the knowledge or financial means to safeguard their data, they will mine their own preferences, so that products can be continued to be sold back to them.
Headed down this road, the internet will soon become the staging ground for a new kind of class war. Unless, of course, societies choose the more sensible route of recasting the internet as a critical public utility, revisiting government initiatives that parcel citizenship and economic participation into a digital bundle, implementing stringent data protection laws, investing in robust security infrastructure as a prerequisite not an afterthought and finally, on a broader level, recognising technological trajectories as social choices that should not be left to market forces alone, even if in the name of innovation. -The Wire

(Urvashi Aneja is director of Tandem Research, research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, and associate professor at the Jindal School of International Affairs).

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