Ever wondered what the internet sells? One word answer: You. That’s what the internet sells. You might think that Facebook is about keeping in touch with friends, that Twitter is about expressing your opinions to the world at large, and Instagram is all about the cool filters. But you would be wrong, wouldn’t you?
Here’s the thing. You’ve always known that Facebook and Twitter and everything else that lets you get a free account online are for-profit corporations; and some of their owners have now become millionaires several times over. So, we’ve established that they aren’t in the business of philanthropy. That Mark Zuckerberg did not come up with the idea of Facebook because he felt bad that the teeming millions had no way to keep track of their school friends or snoop on their ex’s current life. But somewhere, as you were watching those really cute videos of the friendship between kids and their dogs, it slipped your mind, didn’t it? That in order for these companies to make a profit, they need to be selling...well, something. That something is data. Data about you: what you do, when, where, how.
And now that we’ve become completely entrenched in our online social networks, it is impossible to shut it down and get out of it. That harmless check-in at the movie last night, those lovely posts about how much your mother means to you; all of it is being tracked, and traced, and broken down, and analysed. How you write your posts, what you post about, what you ‘like’, what you are ‘angry’ at, and what you absolutely ‘heart’ – all of it is grist to the Big Data mill.
According to scientists at Cambridge University in England and Harvard University in the US, a person’s entire psychological profile can be mapped by simply analysing their ‘likes’ on Facebook. In 2012, scientists were able to prove that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook ‘likes’, they could predict a user’s skin colour with 95 percent accuracy, their sexual orientation with 88 percent accuracy, and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party with 85 percent accuracy. They could predict other things as well, such as religious affiliation, cigarette, alcohol and drug use, and even whether someone’s parents were divorced. The availability of so much data and its analysis has spawned a new field known as psychometrics, which combines the use of big data and psychology.
This new field of psychometrics, sometimes called psychographics focuses on measuring psychological traits based on data such as Facebook ‘Likes’. As Zurich-based Das Magazin has reported, it is very likely that both US President Donald Trump and the UK’s Brexit ‘Leave’ campaign used a psychometrics firm to ensure victory.
Companies such as Facebook (and almost all other companies that produce ‘apps’) collect data not just about what you ‘like’ and where you are (location data is available to them through the gps and the network on your phone), but also what you share, who you talk to, how you respond to particular things, what you need, what you want, who your friends are, and all of this stuff about them too.
All of this data, carefully collected and collated, is available to be sold to the highest bidder. This bidder could be the technology consultant of an election campaign or the marketing team of a toothpaste company. If they know what you like, they can package their product – the candidate, the toothpaste, the service – in a way that you would respond positively to it.
In order to help you buy or buy into literally anything, psychometric analysis can come up with ways to make the ‘product’ appeal specifically, particularly to each individual. We now live in a surveillance society where our every action can be seen and recorded and online privacy becomes a contentious issue. Privacy has always been a tricky concept, even in the so-called ‘real’ world – the world that is offline and privacy is about personal space. In a country like India where the constitution does not explicitly provide citizens any guarantee to a right to privacy, it becomes difficult to negotiate the terrain of what is an invasion of privacy and what is not, especially in an online world in which companies registered in one country provide services in several others, blurring lines of legality and users’ rights.
This allows these apps and websites to operate in a legal gray area where no one seems to know who owns the ‘data’ generated by users. To add another ingredient to the soup are governments and other authorities who can ask social networks and apps to reveal information that users have shared to investigate and even obtain evidence to help establish a crime, or provide location information, establish motives, prove and disprove alibis, and reveal communications.
Last month, the Supreme Court heard a petition on whether social media networks such as Facebook and WhatApp messages should be regulated and the privacy of users should be protected. The Supreme Court sought responses from Facebook (that now owns WhatsApp), WhatsApp and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in order to examine whether Facebook’s access to details of calls, messages, photographs and documents exchanged by 160 million Indian users of WhatsApp violated Indian citizens’ right to privacy.
This could be an important moment in the debate on privacy in India; and provides yet another opportunity for India to analyse its privacy laws and have an open public debate about the future and repercussions of technological surveillance.