Tuesday, February 24, 2015

New digital age and importance of privacy of data

Privacy should not be limited to headline grabbing revelations about surveillance, Snowden and Sony; these conversations need to be mainstreamed to every citizen-consumer.

A few months ago, I was invited to sit on a jury looking at innovative uses of social media platforms and community-oriented apps. The awards criteria included originality, implementation, scalability and impact. The ideas ranged from community based apps that serve as a local Google to online campaigns asking netizens to share their experiences

about sensitive issues. While I returned feeling very hopeful about the positive potential of the internet, there was a nagging feeling that something was missing. The issue of privacy, so very central to the "high brow" conversations we have around the internet, had simply not been addressed in this initiative.

The central business model of the internet is data collection, and much rides on the successful analysis and use of that data. Its growing importance can be gauged from the fact that today "big data" is an industry in itself. It is no wonder that questions of privacy of the data that users are supplying (often inadvertently) are rising to the fore. Globally, the terms of service between consumer and developer are in the spotlight; often users have no idea the degree of personal information they are signing away with a simple click. Worse, is the lack of understanding about privacy concerns in the internet age - which part of your data legitimately belongs to these companies whose services you are using, and what are they attempting to claim ownership over? Will these companies share this data with the government? Are they going through your hard drive and contact list? Who will they sell your data to and will they anonymise it before selling it? Will you be informed of a data breach?

Flagging these concerns in India today can avoid a lot of complications later, and certainly lessons can be drawn from societies who have been through similar experiences. The myth of techno utopia has been around since the early 1990s, when there was hope in the US that new technology would bring universal wealth, enhanced freedom, revitalise politics, and satisfy community and personal fulfillment. Is this true of India today? Consider how the internet is sold to the average Indian - from the wonderful ways in which an internet search can add value to your life, or multiple safety solutions for women which ask them to blithely allow these apps to track their location and movements. Google CEO Eric Schmidt was not wrong when he told the audience at the World Economic Forum at Davos that the internet would simply disappear into the background as it will become so common - a recent report revealed that millions all over the world did not even realise they were using the "internet" when they were using Facebook!

"Code is law" - the idea which Lawrence Lessig fielded in 1999 - believes that it is the code of the software and hardware we use that will determine how much privacy, free speech, anonymity and individual control we are afforded. This certainly rings true today as well, especially in a country like India where we are still operating in the shadow of concepts like privacy, data security and certainly data collection. Unless the apps, platforms and websites being developed and disseminated in India are held to a higher standard - even as they win awards for popularity and sustainability - a billion Indians will find themselves at the short end of the stick due to the proliferation of the uncritical use of these technologies. Are start-up competitions, innovation and entrepreneur funding, and even technology journalists addressing this crucial issue? Are they helping to implement the privacy provisions to India’s Information Technology Act and rules? Look for yourself: Do any of the tech forums seem to betray this concern?

The internet is growing faster than we realise - the internet of people is giving way to the internet of things. Voice-controlled televisions that can "listen" to your information and share with third parties, and weighing scales which could sync your information with your phone, laptop and cloud through your home Wi-Fi network. Before we buy into the vision of a new digital age, one in which technology will save us, let the buyer beware. Is it completely unimaginable in India that our online identities could be linked to a digital "profile" culled from information gathered from digital wallets, websites, and social media chatter?

It’s time developers, funders and users alike start paying more attention to the privacy implications of the techno-utopia they are so eager to participate in.


www.dailyo.in/scitech/why-developers-and-users-need-to-pay-more-attention-to-privacy/story/1/2139.html