Law in the Internet Society
Final Draft

Tracking Right to Information to Real Time Information

-- By ArjunJoshi - 05 Dec 2019

Scrolling... wait, what? - Tracking Users

A month ago, Namrata and I were walking past Hamilton Deli and I expressed my urge to get a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. She said I’ve had too much sugar, and I proceeded to make my case by talking about the fair labour practices of Ben & Jerry’s which even Bernie Sanders acknowledges. I failed and went home. A creature of habit, in the few seconds I had to spend in the elevator, I opened Instagram. In between a picture of a dog trying to bite its tail and another of a football star recovering from his injury, I saw a Ben & Jerry’s advertisement. Had it been any other time, I would have been uncomfortable, but scrolled down nonetheless. But it wasn’t to be. After hearing Jake, who deleted Instagram and Facebook, I decided I should quit too.

In this process, I realised that it’s truer than I cared to admit, that privacy has not been so much taken from me as surrendered by me. And I, like many, surrendered it for what can seem a mere pittance in return. We give data away to the likes of Facebook and Google, without a second thought and delude ourselves that the surrender of our data is a fair price for the pleasure of chatting with friends, playing inane games, and seeing an endless stream of cat, baby, and travel videos.

For Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s CEO, the Ben & Jerry’s ad popped up at the right moment because of dumb luck. The response does not even scratch the surface of the power imbalance which allows Instagram to spy on my daily life. Data mining algorithms generate an incredibly detailed and accurate understanding of each user. The aggregation of Instagram and Facebook as a single identity, centralises the data collection to expose the deepest insecurities of the user and exploit it through advertising. A user is in effect a commodity, whose data is traded to players who are willing to pay for it and retain a vested interest in probing, analysing and manipulating our behaviour, for good or for ill, both online and off.

Yet another element is the anthropomorphic transition of Alexa, Siri and Google, which sees their surveillance as benevolence. Their recommendations, of any kind, seems like a bond – as if it knows us and our interests (which of course they know, for reasons unstated).

And of these companies, their endless storage of our quirks, flaws, and very identities feels roughly akin to being cared for as a person. After all, it’s hard to criticise something that not only is so “nice” to us but that has rendered us dependent to the degree that it might make us uncomfortable to acknowledge that very dependence.

In practice, this means that we can no longer expect a meaningful difference between observability and identifiability — if we can be observed, we can be identified. In one recent study, for example, a group of researchers showed that aggregate cellular location data — the records generated by our cellphones as they anonymously interact with nearby cell towers — can identify individuals with 73 percent to 91 percent accuracy.

And even without these advanced methods, finding out who we are and what we like and do has never been easier. Thanks to the trails created by our continuous online activities, it has become nearly impossible to remain anonymous in the digital age.

Compromised Neutrality

The growing acceptability of social media’s invasion of the private space is offset by a misinformed understanding of convenience. The culture of mass surveillance, which on one hand permits the State to enforce obedience and on the other, develops a digital skeleton of the user for private gain, is here to stay. Facebook admitted to using 98 data points to target advertisements. This all-pervasive tech is the much-needed ally of the State seeking to carefully craft its tentacles and consolidate power, masquerading under terms like convenience and neutrality.

Social media abandons the facade of neutrality at precisely the moment that it is deployed for personal gain. Put otherwise, by people in power. The truth is, the “but I have nothing to hide!” rationalisation is simply evidence of the truncation of critical thought. It’s a failure of imagination and consequently, we are consenting to putting our privacy up for sale and to laying our bare identities at the feet of those in power to scavenge through and even, to manipulate.

In Snowden’s memoir Permanent Record, he reveals a razor-sharp truth: “The data we generate just by living — or just by letting ourselves be surveilled while living — would enrich private enterprise and impoverish our private existence in equal measure. If government surveillance was having the effect of turning the citizen into a subject, at the mercy of state power, then corporate surveillance was turning the consumer into a product, which corporations sold to other corporations, data brokers, and advertisers.”

In essence, we’re facing a pretty severe power imbalance. Our right to privacy is hardly acknowledged. The new normal has become transparency of our private selves, an exchange we didn’t really know we were making. Government officials and corporate executives alike ferret out the loopholes in the Constitution or just brazenly steamroll over them.

Power is timelessly seductive. And presently, the power is piled at the very top. Technology has been a great benefactor of society, but if it’s a tool that can be used for positive aims, it can just as well be utilized for negative ones. Technology can be a tremendous weapon depending on who holds it in their hands. The only way to ensure that the full powers of technology are not abused is to wrest it from those that have wrongfully acquired our digital DNA. The consequences are too dire.

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r4 - 02 Feb 2020 - 21:24:45 - ArjunJoshi
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