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Home / Columns / How ‘Big Brother’ is watching you, all the time | Opinion

How ‘Big Brother’ is watching you, all the time | Opinion

The Orwellian nightmare is coming true, with technology intruding into every sphere. This is deeply dangerous

columns Updated: Aug 24, 2020, 05:54 IST
Shashi Shekhar
Shashi Shekhar
Social media was once the only route to confidential information. Now, new avenues are prying into individual lives
Social media was once the only route to confidential information. Now, new avenues are prying into individual lives(Shutterstock)

Facebook has been in the news in India for all the wrong reasons recently. A criminal case has been registered in Raipur against a top Facebook executive, Ankhi Das, for overlooking inflammatory posts by a politician, allegedly because removing it would anger the ruling dispensation. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have been engaged in a war of words on this issue and it is likely to spill over into the next session of Parliament. There have also been allegations about the Arogya Setu app not being fully secure, but information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has assured people that it is safe.

Let us recall what happened with Cambridge Analytica. The company was alleged to have systematically influenced the 2016 United States (US) presidential election. There were claims that the company illegally monitored the accounts of around 85 million Facebook users.  

By doing this, it was able to discern what many Americans were thinking, what kind of leadership they were seeking and what policies appealed to them. These allegations were not fully substantiated, but it affected the company adversely. Facebook also had to pay a huge price for its actions, its shares nosedived by $119 billion in just one day.

Private information barriers being breached is becoming a real danger. Due to the spread of Covid-19, different smartphone apps have become almost mandatory in almost every country. The data collected through these apps, if used for anything other than medical and scientific purposes, could seriously compromise the privacy of the individual.

Until now, people were monitored through their physical movements and views expressed on social media. Now, for the first time, it would seem that your medical parameters could reach unknown corporates. They could ascertain who is a diabetic, hypertensive or what allergies a person could have. This can be abused, especially in places with a weak democracy or one without a robust and independent judiciary.

This debate actually began in the mid-1990s and was initiated by Gabriel Baiman, a researcher at the University of Haifa, Israel. After extensive research, he found that 90% of the recruitment to terrorist organisations was done through social platforms.

After a thorough reading of what topics people read, which videos they had seen, how they expressed their thoughts, what sort of messages they exchanged with loved ones and others, researchers were able to get an accurate picture of what was going on in the minds of young people.

This information made it easier to influence them. It is easier to sow the seeds of hate. Jihadi John, an ISIS member from Britain, who became notorious for his beheading videos, was recruited through social media. A number of young Indians were also misled by propaganda on social media platforms.

There was once a time when social media was the only window into people’s thoughts. This has changed over time. Various new avenues are available for people to pry into our personal space.

This moves one step ahead when one uses these platforms to even acquire information about our whereabouts. Everything and everyone is online. There is no guarantee that this data will not reach a terrorist organisation, an anarchist group, a foreign government, rogue government officials or predatory drug companies.

The Russian writer, philosopher and political prisoner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, narrated a surreal story about the Soviet Union in his book The Gulag Archipelago. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was delivering a speech at a conference after which the audience broke into applause. Every person in the room began clapping wildly, with each person waiting for someone else to take the initiative to stop.

At last, the director of a paper factory decided enough was enough. He stopped clapping and sat down, and right after that everyone else followed suit. The same night, he was arrested and sent to Siberia for the rest of his life. Now imagine this scenario. If Stalin had the means to ascertain how many people listening to him were truly interested in what he had to say, many more may have been exiled to Siberia.

If North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, could determine how many people in his council of ministers agreed with his policies, there is no telling what would happen to them. If physical indicators such as blood pressure could be monitored to gauge reactions to changes in government policy, people could be controlled more closely by the government.

Confidential information falling into the wrong hands, or unknown hands, is a huge danger to all citizens of democratic countries.

In his seminal novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote of “Big Brother” who was watching everyone. Today, Big Brother has acquired much more power and can look right into your body and record your vital functions. A scary thought if there ever was one.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal
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