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There may be a price to pay for online privacy

Dirty data will not vanish. But, if your information is a commodity that’s worth securing, perhaps consumers ought to pony up an annual fee for that privilege.

columns Updated: Apr 13, 2018 18:35 IST
Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer and founder of Facebook Inc., walks through the Rayburn House Office building before a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, DC, April 11, 2018(Bloomberg)

At a certain point during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before a committee of the United States Senate, he was asked whether he was comfortable sharing the name of the Washington hotel he stayed in the previous night. He wasn’t. No surprise there. But if he had geo-location enabled on his smartphone, that information already exists in a data centre somewhere. Users of mobiles using Android, for instance, will be well aware of the incredibly intrusive Google Now, which will not just prompt you for a quick review of the hotel you have checked into, but can track your commuting habits, and from your news consumption, suss out your political predilections.

Each of these data points, once collated, can provide a fairly useful profile not just for marketers but law enforcement agencies, and even intelligence spooks, as previous leaks from the likes of Edward Snowden, now a permanent Russian resident, will evidence.

Matters aren’t likely to improve immediately, regardless of Zuckerberg’s apologies and appeal for patience, for instance, with artificial intelligence tools being deployed to counter hate speech, in five to 10 years as they get into “the linguistic nuances of different types of content to be more accurate in flagging things for our systems”. That statement ought to make plenty of people more nervous, not less, as AI has already been shown to exhibit prejudice, and will operate on how the system is trained.

But the jitters shouldn’t stop there. Zuckerberg spoke grandly of how 2018 was an “incredibly important year for elections”, mentioning India in that context. “We want to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the integrity of those elections,” he asserted, as if he could drive the agenda. And he, and others of the social media and search network probably can, with algorithms that manipulate data, again as trained by humans with their preferences.

The problem at the root of this data disaster, of course, is one that has plagued the digital domain since the Internet was young: That of freeware. Users have become so accustomed to paying nothing for their pleasure, and the trade-off has been that personal details have become the currency.

In an age when some mobile phones cost over $1,000, perhaps the moment has arrived to disrupt the data miners’ operations with willingness to pay for social media services as fair exchange for digitally sandboxing personal information. Otherwise, the user remains the product, with plenty of pirates seeking to pilfer it. Those, like Zuckerberg, would rather live with the ad-supported model and its potential problems. With a payment model, there will also be reduced risk for political biases of the platforms dictating access and behaviour.

Dirty data will not vanish. But, if your information is a commodity that’s worth securing, perhaps consumers ought to pony up an annual fee for that privilege. There may be a price to pay for privacy.

Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 13, 2018 18:35 IST