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SC’s privacy verdict is welcome but privacy is overrated in digital era

Let’s not restrict our debate just to Aadhaar. User privacy has been violated for a very long time and you have known about it all the while.

tech Updated: Aug 25, 2017 14:04 IST
Kul Bhushan
Kul Bhushan
Hindustan Times
Right to privacy india,supreme court india,Right to privacy
Supreme Court ruled that citizens have a constitutional right to privacy, a landmark verdict that could have wide-reaching implications for the government's biometric programme which holds data on over one billion people. / AFP PHOTO / Noah SEELAM(AFP)

The Supreme Court in a landmark verdict has declared individual privacy as a fundamental right of the citizens. The verdict is being considered as a serious jolt to the government’s ambitious Aadhaar programme, a biometric identification project that is linked to a variety of welfare schemes. Aadhaar has also become a key document for KYC in the banks, telecom operators, and even is linked to your PAN cards.

Most of the discussion is revolving around the decision’s impact on Aadhaar but the ruling is going to have a far more serious implication on internet companies such as Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and many others that have user data and user base as a big part of their business models. If you are not aware, data mining is actually a serious thing and many companies across the world are doing it. READ Data Mining: Privacy Concerns and Ethics

But, when we mention Google, Facebook or WhatsApp, aren’t we talking about ourselves as well? In short, the right to privacy verdict will open a new Pandora’s box, impacting each and every one of us in this digital era.

“Informational privacy is a facet of the right to privacy. The dangers to privacy in an age of information can originate not only from the state but from non-state actors as well,” read the Supreme Court judgment.

Privacy is overrated and has always been

I understand that the above-mentioned statement may have triggered a range of emotions in you by now. You might be furious. But, hear me out. Let me begin with a question. Are you a Facebook user? Of course, yes.

Here’s what Facebook’s privacy policy says, “We collect the content and other information you provide when you use our Services, including when you sign up for an account, create or share, and message or communicate with others. This can include information in or about the content you provide, such as the location of a photo or the date a file was created. We also collect information about how you use our Services, such as the types of content you view or engage with or the frequency and duration of your activities.”

“We receive information about you from companies that are owned or operated by Facebook, in accordance with their terms and policies,” Facebook adds on its policy page.

This essentially means Facebook has access to some of your data from platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and Masquerade.

Not long ago, there was a huge furore over WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app in India, sharing data with its parent company Facebook.

WhatsApp’s Alan Kao, a software engineer at WhatsApp, recently said messages shared on the platform carry a metadata that “tells servers that the message contains text or video. This allows us to track whether users are enjoying the new feature or not.” He acknowledged WhatsApp shares data such as user’s name, if provided, and device’s model number among other things. READ WhatsApp and user privacy: Your top questions answered

The point is, you knew this and have always known this. You will be still amused to see an ad that you visited on your browser earlier appearing on Facebook. But, have you stopped using any of these platforms? I have not, at least.

Until June 2017, Google was scanning your emails to serve you targeted advertisements. “G Suite’s Gmail is already not used as input for ads personalization, and Google has decided to follow suit later this year in our free consumer Gmail service. Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization after this change. This decision brings Gmail ads in line with how we personalize ads for other Google products. Ads shown are based on users’ settings,” Google announced in a blog post earlier this year.

Let’s talk about the mobile apps you have been using. How many of you have actually read the set of permissions you have granted to all of these apps? Android is the most popular mobile operating system in the world and its Play Store has millions of applications. Despite Google’s apparent stringent monitoring, several malicious applications make their way to the Play Store. Just recently, Google pulled more than 500 apps over spyware threat.

Back in 2014, a host of Android apps came under the scanner for accessing more users’ data they should. These apps, as basic as the flashlight, sought permission to access your call details, location and ability to delete apps on the device. Check the permissions: Android flashlight apps criticised over privacy

That being said, can we do without these mobile apps? How much attention do we pay to those permissions anyway?

It’s not just basic users’ data that we should be worried about. There’s already a grey market for customers’ databases. The data base is used for a variety of purposes ranging from spam messages to making your ID vulnerable to cyber crime. All of this happens without your consent. Yahoo and LinkedIn are among top internet companies that have suffered serious cyber attacks, leaving their users more vulnerable.

Can governments come out clean?

Last year, Apple found itself locked in a legal tussle with the US government over the issue of unlocking the iPhone used by the terrorist involved in the San Bernardino attack. Apple refused to grant a backdoor to its iOS citing privacy and security of its users. But FBI got the iPhone unlocked by an “outside group.”

In a separate case last year, a spyware called Pegasus was discovered. The spyware was being allegedly used by the UAE government to target dissidents or journalists, human rights activists, anyone it perceived as enemies. READ: THE MILLION DOLLAR DISSIDENT

Bottomline

It is really good to have “right to privacy” as our fundamental right. But, the bitter fact is that a Big Brother exists. Perhaps, many Big Brothers exist. Subconsciously, all of us know about this but still are living with it. Whether things will change radically after the Supreme Court verdict is yet to be seen.

First Published: Aug 25, 2017 14:04 IST