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HACKING LIVES

Millions of people logging onto social media sites are not engaged in a private activity, as they imagine. They are putting themselves out in cyberspace to be exploited

Nothing is private. Certainly not your time on the internet. One was afraid of surveillance by governments and policing agencies marking one’s every move. But that’s just half the risk. Now with revelations about Cambridge Analytica — in actuality its parent company the SCL group – and its tactics to influence voters emerges, it reveals the new threat that cyberspace poses – hijacking our minds.

In America, it was done via an innocuous-seeming personality test on Facebook. The social networking site – whose No. 1 users are Indians, with a whopping 241 million people –  was the tool used by the company to steal data from millions of users. No, not just those who clicked on it, but even those that were friends of those taking the test.

This data, apparently, may have been used to sway voters in the 2016 US presidential elections. Even in India, as the whistle-blower Christopher Wylie declared to a British parliamentary committee, they worked extensively. In a tweet later, Wylie put out data which revealed SCL’s database included 600 districts (according to the 2011 census of India, the country has 640 districts) and seven lakh villages, which is being constantly updated. One can assume that data on every part of the country and its people is collected by this site and tuned to the different tasks its clients want it to perform.

The internet is now being used to target us, motivate us, and influence our decisions, be it what kinds of outfits to wear, or more mechanical ones like offering us travel tickets to the location we googled, or more devious ones like pushing a political party’s agenda. More dangerously, people can be divided on religious, caste and social lines through the biggest invention of 2017 – Fake News!

Lawrence Lessig, a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, co-founder of Creative Commons and a political activist had in 1999, in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace warned that the internet would track our every move. He wrote then that “We will watch as important aspects of privacy and free speech are erased by the emerging architecture of the panopticon (mind and social control through surveillance)”.

Lessig, then in 2006, reworked his earlier book and released “Code: Version 2.0”, where he rightfully predicted, “Cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control”. An individual, according to his analysis would have two things to fear: one, the government, and the other, commerce. Lessig says that the cyberspace’s “invisible hand” was being pushed by the two entities to construct an architecture for “perfect control”, making “highly efficient regulation possible.”

A good example by Lessig, which is meaningful here, is that of AOL, an online service provider in America and a web portal. He says, if AOL wants to discourage users from some certain services it could slow the response time for the service.

By way of explanation, let’s say AOL’s biggest competition is MSN and it doesn’t want its customer lingering on that website. It could just make the time for loading the page take longer to irritate a browser into shutting the site down.

But it wouldn’t stop there. Lessig says the service provider can also channel the surfer “through ads that it wants customers to see” and it can even identify “patterns of behaviour that its monitors would watch, based on the fear that people with patterns like X are typically dangerous to people of type Y.”

The far-reaching implications are unimaginable.

Cyberspace has created a world which allows people to be tracked, creating a fortress of an alternative universe where everything is available to the consumer and of the consumer, for the company’s control

Beginning of a new world?

A twitter user by the name of Dylan Curran recently shared through a series of tweets, just how much information the likes of Facebook and Google store about a person without him/her even realising it. Google stores your location every time you turn on your phone. You can visit the website given below and see a full timeline from the first day you started using Google on your phone. The data includes every place you have visited, the time, the pictures you took at that location, and of course, the time it took you to get to that location from your previous one. You can find out just how much Google knows about you at: https://www.google.com/maps/timeline?pb

Google stores search history across all the devices you use on a separate database, even data you have deleted. You can go into the activity section of Google and remove all the information, which you would have to do on all devices where you use the app. One can see his/her search history here: https://myactivity.google.com/myactivity

Google has of course created an advertisement profile based on your information, including your location, gender, age, hobbies, career, interests, relationship status, possible weight (need to lose 10lbs in one day?) and income. In the past Google, has been accused of using our information for generating income, a practice which Apple’s CEO Tim Cook criticised. Google’s utilisation of our data has in effect allowed it to make almost all its services free.  Visit the link to see how you are marketed https://adssettings.google.com/authenticated

It also stores information on every app and extension you use, how often you use them, where you use them, and who you use them to interact with (who do you talk to on Facebook, what countries are you speaking with, what time you go to sleep). This is Google surveillance! See how you’ve been watched https://myaccount.google.com/permissions

Google stores ALL of your YouTube history, so they know your religious, social, and political beliefs, and even your mental state. ( https://www.youtube.com/feed/history/search_history)

Google offers an option to download all the data it stores about you, Curran had requested to download all this information and it was 5.5gb big, roughly 3 million word documents. This link he says, includes your bookmarks, emails, contacts, your Google Drive files, all of the above information, your YouTube videos, the photos you’ve taken on your phone, the businesses you’ve bought from, the products you’ve bought through Google… Your calendar, your Google hangout sessions, your location history, the music you listen to, the books you’ve purchased, the Google groups you’re in, the websites you’ve created, the phones you’ve owned, the pages you’ve shared, how many steps you walk in a day (https://takeout.google.com/settings/takeout)

Facebook offers a similar option to download all your information. This includes every text message, audio message or file you have ever sent, all your contacts in your phone. Facebook also stores what it thinks you might be interested in based on the things you’ve liked and what you and your friends talk about. Even the stickers you have ever used in your conversations on Facebook. They also store every time you log into Facebook, where you logged in from, what time, and from what device. And they store all the applications you’ve ever had connected to your Facebook account, so they can guess one’s interests, if you are single or are dating and if you have purchased a new phone.

Few years ago, Google introduced a new privacy policy that enables it to dig even deeper into the lives of more than one billion users. It cannot be denied that our information has helped these billion-dollar companies become richer. We aren’t getting these services for free, the price we pay is our privacy, our life. Mahesh Murthy, who is the founder of digital marketing firm Pinstorm wrote on Facebook, ”When a service is free, you are the product.” With everyone’s lives out there for these data harvesting corporations, we will never know if we’re watching an advert because we are meant to.

What can we do?

Lessig offers a few solutions. Like making a law banning the sale of data gathered from customers without the permission of customers. “The aim of the law could either be to enhance the power of individuals to control data about them, or to disable such power (for example, by making certain privacy-related transactions illegal).”

Furthermore, he points to a change of norms to respond to these threats. “Norms among commercial entities, for example, could help build trust around certain privacy protective practices.”

The next solution is for either companies or individuals to bring about such technology which could be used to protect privacy, giving a user “more technical control over data associated with him or her”. The answer lies in the Identity layer that many are promoting.

Take the example of SCIM –  System for Cross Domain Identity Management – which helps companies standardise identity data, its creation, update and storage. Shouldn’t that be possible for an individual wanting to protect their data? And the layers of information that is readily available for companies such as Cambridge Analytica trying to make you into an experiment?