Social Media and Data Privacy

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Over the last few years, we have heard a lot about data privacy violations on social media - about Facebook and Google spying on me. A lot of people have gone to the extent of uninstalling Facebook, and even Google from their lives. And many others have made it a great selling point for their own products.

This panic has provided a fertile ground for many mongers who are always eager to misuse our ignorance. This panic has shaken us to a great extent. Today, we are ready to believe that someone somewhere will donate generously so that we can continue our meaningless gossip with our friends! Is that possible?

My Private Life

What exactly are Google or Facebook spying into? Is my life so interesting that anyone else would ever be interested in knowing about it? I have seem some people stretch their imagination to the extent that they believe Mark Zucherberg gets detailed reports of our all our private secrets - or that the employees of Google spend their coffee time gossiping about my pizza date last week. I am sure they have better things to do in life!

Just think of the huge volume of data flowing through their servers. Facebook generates 4 Petabytes of data everyday. Google generates 20 Petabytes. Even if someone is so notoriously curious, and manages his way to these servers, is it humanly possible for anybody to actually decode and read anything about me - among the billions of users out there? And even if he did, why should I be scared of anyone ever finding out about me?

He may have a good laugh at the jokes that I shared, or admire my art, or pity that I am so busy in my work, that it takes me many hours to read messages. How will anybody benefit from that? And what would I lose if someone did? Why will anybody waste so much of time behind collecting my data?

Have I committed such a grave crime - that I want to hide from the world?

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Security

Signal or Whatsapp, or any sensible chat application will encrypt your data end to end. The chats are also saved encrypted and can not be easily accessed by others. Some people are worried that hackers can read a password that I shared with somebody, to hack my bank account. Well, that is quite possible - but is not limited to any particular app. If you are callous about saving your passwords, and you share it with people, it is certainly hackable.

A hacker cannot read your mind. Any other place is not safe for a password - be it Signal or WhatsApp or Facebook or Google. Each of them can and will be hacked. But without knowing your password, there is no other way to crack into your accounts. Gone are the days when banks gave away your password based on your date of birth or mother's maiden name. If you are careful with your credit card numbers and OTP, there is no special threat from Facebook. If you are not careful with these, you will be hacked irrespective of Facebook.

Why do they collect data?

Foremost, discard the thought that any human reads or analyzes your data. That is just not possible. And the servers do not understand anything beyond 1 and 0. Then who really reads your data? Well, nobody! But the beauty of their technology and innovation is that such a server is able to give you the best insights possible. Let us take a high level peek at this.

One of the simplest applications of this data is targeted advertisement. Google and Facebook provide us with the most relevant advertisements while are are browsing on the net. This is how it works -

While we are browsing the net, all the web pages are rendered onto screen by Google Chrome browser. In this process, the browser collects the set of "Keywords" that I use for search and the text present in the website that I visit. For the browser, this is just a sequence of bytes. This sequence of bytes is saved on the server, along with a user id - that the browser uses to identify me. The server does not understand what is a human. It just knows bytes, and a 128 byte string is my identity there. Over time, the server collects a good chunk of keywords - related to each user. Advertisers on the other hand, provide Google with keywords that represent their product. Google matches the two, to identify what advertisement would be more relevant for me and shows me just that.

Well, this is quite an old technology now. Often, this is not so effective. I may be interested in a dish washer, but never before searched the net for it! What if there is no good match at all? That is where clustering comes in. Facebook / Google identifies the "patterns" for every user connected. Using these patterns, it identifies "similar" users. If one person buys a product, all the "similar" users are quite likely to buy the same product - and are exposed to that advertisement. If my neighbor buys a dish washer, I am likely to follow very soon.

But this "similarity" of users is not so easy to identify. The server does not understand what is a human. It does not understand what is a camera or a dishwasher. It just understands 1 or 0. That is where the AI Clustering algorithms come in - to translate the numerical similarity between the usage patterns into the prediction of who will buy a given product.

Isn't this an amazing feature? I love it. It saves so much of my time and effort when I am searching for anything on the net. When I am on call with a customer, and I want to know more about him, I am excited to see that LinkedIn or Facebook proactively shows me that profile. When I search for news, I want to see Arnab Goswami, not Rajdeep Sardesai. And YouTube provides me just that. What more would I want? Is this infringing into my privacy? They are helping me!

There are so many innovations from Facebook and Google - that are freely available to us. And these were possible only because we allowed them to access our data. Face recognition was impossible if we had not shared our photos with them.

We all use Google Maps to find our way through the city traffic. We depend on its accurate prediction about the time it would take to reach our destination. This would not be possible if we had not shared our geo location data with Google!

Real time language translation was not possible if we had not provided them so much text in different languages. We are on the verge of using driverless cars on our road. That was not possible without the data we provided. We are getting this at almost no cost.

Remember that when we say no to sharing data with Google or Facebook, we are saying no to this research and innovation. We are saying no to the development of such wonderful products, and the possibilities of a wonderful future. And we are doing it out of sheer panic.

If someone tells me that their product is not using this data, I would say they are wasting my data!

The Dark Web

At the same time, I repeatedly remind everyone that one must be careful about security and privacy. Not everyone is judicious about your data. A lot of applications and website were made with the single objective of luring users into sharing information that will be misused.

I tell everyone that if you are using a Chinese phone or a Chinese app, you are already sold off to the worst possible buyer. If you have any concern about security and privacy, you have to clear these from your life. We have to be careful about the source of the apps we install and the websites where we provide our information.

Facebook and Google tell you exactly what data they collect, and how they use your information - allowing you to control this usage. This is simple win-win deal. But, if someone offers the same service without declaring how the costs will be managed, I think there is a loop hole in there. Remember, there is no free lunch. If it is free, it is indeed very costly.

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