In short – FSMK condemns the misuse of personal data to alter the fate of democracy. FSMK also believes that the governments, state or central, should proactively push for the privacy of citizens, offline and online, and develop a dedicated framework for protection of data within the national borders. FSMK warns, as always, that centralisation of data, in public or private sector, is a threat to the fabric of life, both as individuals and the society, in this digital age. FSMK is reaching out to people to provide informed consent to organisations before handing over their personal data to ‘free’ service providers.

Data is the new means of monetisation. You have corporates like Reliance openly stating the same [1]. Quite often people miss the concept of a ‘free’ service. If an organisation is providing ‘free’ service, then the customers subscribing to the ‘free’ service are the product. Here, we’d like to clarify that ‘free’ stands for ‘free lunch’ and not ‘freedom’ as it is associated with ‘Free Software’.

In the context of this article, the data generated by the users are utilised in ways unimaginable for monetisation. The recent highlight of Facebook user’s data being used to manipulate the public voting choices are something of a shockwave, to governments and the general public, across the globe but is simply a single instance of data misuse. Little does the public know that this was highlighted a year ago when Donald Trump won the US elections. This recent frenzy can be credited to ‘The Guardian’[2] for highlighting the issue. All in all, how does it affect the netizens and the citizens of India?

People need to critically question the take on the political parties’ perspective and stance on this. To get their election seats, the governments are targeting Facebook to ensure that the netizens are not manipulated to vote for a candidate during elections. While it appears the government’s or various political parties’ “righteous” desire to maintain a “functioning” democracy, it is more of a façade to gain political power. If any of these entities were concerned about users’ data harvested in petabytes, they would be debating about building ‘Data Regulation Laws’ to reinstate the privacy of its citizens in the digital world. The mandate being provided by the government is simply a selfish motive and nothing more. India should be following the lines of Norway, an ideal example, to setup “Data Protection Authorities” which would keep an eye, on behalf of the general public. on the misuse of citizens personal data by public or private organisations.

To focus on the actual developments, the case revolves around the firm ‘Cambridge Analytica (CA)’ a British political consulting firm with its headquarters in London. Steve Bannon, former National Security Advisor of the USA, was the former Vice President of CA. The fact that CA openly states itself as a ‘political consulting firm’ should raise eyebrows. The use of data to target people for political votes was reported initially by the online journal Motherboard [3]. CA was also responsible for pushing “Leave EU Brexit campaign” in the early stages. How does a ‘political consulting firm’ work?

There have been lot of early reports on how a user’s digital footprint can enable algorithms to precisely judge their psychological traits. This was initially tested and recognised in 2014 at the Psychometrics Centre, Cambridge University. Michal Kosinski during his PhD tenure at the Psychometrics Centre came up with a model called the “OCEAN” model. It is based on five personality traits –

  1. Openness – How open are you to your experiences?
  2. Conscientiousness – How much of a perfectionist are you?
  3. Extroversion – How sociable are you?
  4. Agreeableness – How considerate and cooperative are you?
  5. Neuroticism – Are you easily upset?

Thanks to Facebook, Kosinski and team were able to obtain the largest dataset for testing their model. On further developing the model, they were able to accurately deduce the personality of an individual just by their Facebook data. The following example describes how the model works –

  1. Based on 50 Facebook “likes”, the model could predict a personality trait of you that your acquaintances wouldn’t know.
  2. Based on 100 Facebook “likes”, the model could predict a personality trait of you that your friends wouldn’t know.
  3. Based on 200 Facebook “likes”, the model would be able to predict a personality trait that your family wouldn’t know about you.
  4. Based on 250 Facebook “likes”, the model would be able to able predict a personality trait that you yourself wouldn’t know.

This horrifying story does not end here. For the model to be implemented, firms like CA need to buy data from organisations. While Facebook is the single largest personal data aggregator, considering its recent purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram, people often forget that companies like Google and Yahoo also sell user data. For that matter, any organisation which provides a ‘free’ service is more often than not selling user generated data. Facebook, for the moment, is caught in the puddle. Data firms like CA buy data from multiple such data generators and aggregate it to generate targeted ‘ads’ or in this case ‘political campaigns’ to people using the web, whether logged in on Facebook or not. They used Facebook data to identify political inclinations of people, based on “likes, dislikes and comments”, using the OCEAN model. This was applied for Trump’s Presidential campaign as well as in the early stages of “Brexit” campaign.

If the question of “how” was CA able to get their hands on users data, it should be made aware that the user has provided consent and granted Facebook, and organisations alike, “to a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you can post on or in connection with Facebook.”

In the Indian political context, the discussion on Facebook and user data manipulation for political gain has come into picture as each party is blaming the other for partnering up with such ‘data firms’ for political advantage on and off during elections. It is unclear, at present time, whether any political party has affiliations.

Irrespective of the government in power, or the other political parties desire to protect citizens data, it is the duty of every citizen accessing the web to be informed about the ‘service’ or ‘product’ they are using. It is also the duty of technical organisations, and the citizens, to push for ‘Data Protection Policies’ which would protect users data both in the private and public realm. India should be treading along the lines of European Union (EU) and proactively questioning the motives of the data hoarders like Facebook. TRAI, over the last few years, has proven to exist to serve the general public by taking decisions pro Net Neutrality that plays a critical role in maintaining democracy. FSMK requests TRAI to continue to regulate such organisations proactively for the safety and security of the general public.


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