The Vibhishana of the Digital Era


In a time when data has become more valuable than oil, Angad Sethi, 2nd year, COE, pens down his concerns and worries as to how data mining undermines the fundamental right to privacy and leaves us all vulnerable.


“घर का भेदी लंका ढाये” is a phrase which we have heard often enough. If Vibhishana, who was the real brother of Ravana, could betray him, I wonder how did we even think of placing our trust with money minting organizations like Google, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, when they “assured” us that our darkest secrets, most gratifying acts or our misdeeds would remain private. Ravana, who was unparalleled in his wisdom and knowledge, and was on the verge of winning the war and being remembered forever, now gets blown to smithereens every year, only because Vibhishana spilled the beans. So, in today’s digital era, how secret are our secrets?


On 2nd October 2019, the London’s Court of Appeal gave the go-ahead for action against Google over claims it collected data from more than 4 million iPhone users, overturning a ruling in 2018 that in effect blocked any route to legal redress. In 2018, Facebook was directed to pay five billion dollars as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission - by far the largest penalty ever imposed on a company for violating consumers' privacy rights. Khaled Saad once said, “If you give your trust to a person who does not deserve it, you actually give him the power to destroy you”, and technological giants like Google and Facebook have proved this adage to be true.


When I first heard that Facebook sold the data of millions of citizens, I couldn’t have cared less. What information could someone possibly gather about me from my date of birth or my previous education? But a slew of articles on the internet introduced me to the term “data mining”. For the uninitiated, data mining is the practice of examining large databases in order to generate new information.


Data mining had at one time been hailed as the holy grail of the technological revolution. The government and the private sector alike, rejoiced at the acquisition of this new tool. Governmental agencies could analyse the databases of their citizens, single out the irregularities and take corrective action. National security, at last, seemed just within grasp. For the private sector, the possibilities seemed endless. Advertising and targeted marketing being just the tip of the iceberg. Companies were now able to predict their customers’ needs and interests, and act accordingly. If you searched for funny dog videos, Amazon would make sure you had all the dog food, dog shampoos and soap you needed.


Alas, this fairy tale doesn’t have a happy ending. This utopian paradise soon came crashing down on its creators. People realised that data mining, at its very core, is an assault on the fundamental right to privacy. This problem was brought to the spotlight, by the issue that triggered the long overdue discussion on the ethics of data mining, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal. The controversy over data mining really picked up steam when it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica had paid Facebook for access to the data of over 50 million US Citizens in preparation for the 2016 US election. Since then, Facebook has drawn consistent criticism for its data mining practices.


Then came the damage-control-chorus of the technological companies, chanting that “Your data is private” or “All identifying features have been scrubbed off”. However, in a study conducted by MIT scientists and urban planners, it was shown that it’s fairly simple to figure out the identities of the citizens. In other words, anonymized data could be deanonymized pretty quickly when working with multiple datasets within a city. While the MIT group wasn’t trying to unmask specific users in this dataset, they proved that someone acting in bad faith could merge such anonymized datasets with personal ones using the same process, easily pinning the timestamps together to figure out who was who. So, what is the point of installing the best security systems in your house, if the data collectors are just a click and a few dollars away from knowing everything about you?


The recent wave of individualism has been heralded as a new era for humanity. Every human being is their own self, and they need not conform to societal standards. Data mining, however, is in gross violation of the very essence of individualism. Data mining believes in labelling and profiling populations of the earth, based on race, sex, ethnicity and demographics. In this process, they end up creating generalised data which doesn’t reflect upon the characteristics and uniqueness of the different groups. The outcome of data mining lays the foundation, for a building of towering proportions called discrimination.


Data mining gives its wielder, powers to sway events on a global scale. The biggest superpower on the face of the Earth, the United States of America, is not an alien to the effects of these powers. Using data mining techniques and a little help from Facebook, Cambridge Analytica was able to target Americans and influence their choices in the 2016 presidential elections. Over 50 million Americans were nudged and coaxed into thinking that they wanted to vote for a certain candidate. This menace has far reaching implications. Imagine a Jihadi outfit, which wants to radicalise and recruit, any person who is dissatisfied with their government and has a violent streak. Now, think of them purchasing data from such firms. Targeted videos, Facebook & YouTube does the rest of the job for them, constantly feeding violence and dissatisfaction into the brains of their targets and voila! The world has another ISIS.


We were doomed the moment our data and our personal information hit the market and was handed over to a third party to manipulate us, into buying, thinking, doing and speaking just as the party seemed fit. The data generators of today, have become guinea pigs, for just about anyone can afford to hire data scientists and have our data analysed. Imagine a world where there are no secrets, no veil of privacy, where your neighbour knows what kind of movies you watch, or your local grocer knows that you went to Switzerland last month. This is where we are heading, into a world where secrets are taboo, privacy no longer valued and your private data available for a few cents. It is high time that we become conscious and aware of the data we generate, who has access to it and who uses it for what purpose. The late Tony Stark quite rightly said, “You start with something pure. Something exciting. Then come the mistakes, the compromises. We create our own demons.”


Illustration By Anirudh Kundu

Posted by Angad Sethi

I reflect. I write.