Data Privacy in 2022: A Myth Or Impending Reality?

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In recent times, Bloomberg published an article titled, “Google Is Sharing Our Data at a Startling Scale.” This article is based on a report conducted by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties stating that Google, the world’s omnipresent search engine of choice transmits our locations and browsing habits 70 billion times a day to advertisers. This particular article along with the contents of the aforementioned report has been republished and reported by a wide variety of digital and print-based publications gaining traction both nationally and internationally. Afterall it concerns our privacy as users in the online sphere, arguably our most visited metaphorical destination, one that transcends national and geographical borders.

The process of capturing sensitive data is a complex system. However, the simple fact of the matter is that we are surrounded by devices that collect information, ostensibly to make our lives better but which are then sold to the highest bidder. A few examples of the growing trend of ambient computing include smart speakers, fitness trackers and augmented-reality glasses. Explained simply each time a smartphone user opens an app that shows ads, the device in question shares data about that user to help show them a targeted ad. The winning bidder for the available ad space is the advertiser with the highest offer.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, several advertising networks have admitted to providing user data to the Department of Homeland Security and other governmental entities to track mobile phones without warrants. Unaware users may not be able to understand the drawbacks of being digitally mined for data.

Closer home, in India, the escalation of mobile telephony has increased the user base, leading to scaling up the volume of personal data points provided to content, e-commerce, and social media applications and websites at unprecedented levels. This growing practice of providing personal data in lieu of personalized user experience attracts a host of privacy considerations, such as data permissions, user consent, profiling and informed data sharing. Instances of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter sharing user information including their age, gender, and the nature of content frequently viewed and shared with third-party apps and the government are not uncommon. As a result, private information such as the way in which we vote, our preferences, and our disabilities are all now within the realm of accessible knowledge.

This is also enabled by thousands of cookies that lie semi-dormant in our browsers. In rudimentary language, cookies are just data points that are saved about you while you’re online and track you as you explore. For instance, you go to a weather website and put in your zip code to look up what’s happening in your area; because of cookies, the website will remember your zip code when you return. These cookie disclosures are symptomatic of one of the internet’s ongoing and fundamental failings when it comes to online privacy and who has the power to access and resell users’ data and by extension, who can use it to track them across the internet and in real life. This is when things spiral downwards when the myth of anonymity you assume you possess in the online sphere shatters and spills over to impact your life outside your phone/laptop screen.

As part of a generation that is often labelled as ‘living their lives online,’ it is safe to say that our online personas are a culmination of multiple layers of data. It is this data on which the marketers depend for creating accurate personality profiles in order to deliver the right product, and services. Unsurprisingly, when consumers are recommended the products and services they need, they appreciate it due to the ‘salient personalization’ aspect of it.

I became acutely aware of this when the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light. It made me ponder about the online footprint I had been unconsciously leaving and its implications in my life. Whether my likes and dislikes, political preferences, or the content that I consumed was dictated by my sensibilities or resultant of the algorithm that tracked my every move, surreptitiously heard every conversation I had and influenced vital aspects of my personality and being. This knowledge has made me more conscious while browsing online. I resist clicking on the ‘Accept all cookies’ option without a perfunctory look at the information a particular website is gathering from and about me. My inevitable role as a cog in late-stage capitalism boosted by the unchecked boom of online advertising is a tricky spot to be in. The desire to own more and the accessibility to source it online through a host of ads personalized to my taste and liking is both convenient and filled with peril.


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