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OPINION by Lt Gen DS Hooda | If Facebook Can Use Our Data, So Can Enemy States

There should have been no reason for us to be shocked by what Cambridge Analytica has done as its website openly boasts of having “played a pivotal role in winning presidential races” and claims to have “up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters”. Nobody has questioned as to how this data was obtained.

Lt Gen (Retd) DS Hooda |

Updated:April 4, 2018, 10:34 AM IST
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OPINION by Lt Gen DS Hooda | If Facebook Can Use Our Data, So Can Enemy States
(Illustration: Mir Suhail/ News18.com)
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Last month, a whistleblower blew the lid off one of the worst-kept secrets in the world—breaches of personal data are occurring with alarming regularity and this data is being used to influence a large section of the population into making choices that have immense strategic implications for nations. As Christopher Wylie, a former Director of Research at Cambridge Analytica, told the Observer, “We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people's profiles. And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons.”

There should have been no reason for us to be shocked by what Cambridge Analytica has done. That it was using personal data for psychographic profiling has been well known. Its website openly boasts of having “played a pivotal role in winning presidential races” and claims to have “up to 5,000 data points on over 230 million American voters”. Nobody has questioned as to how this data was obtained.

Immediately after the revelation, the IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad warned the CEO of Facebook, “Mr Mark Zuckerberg you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome the Facebook profile in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent power in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India."

Thereafter, the complete issue degenerated into a political slugfest between the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Congress about which of the two parties had, in the past, engaged with Cambridge Analytica.

Sadly, this is a familiar and typical Indian response. We tend to ignore crucial issues till they literally hit us in the face. Thereafter, we adopt a mix of bluster, threats and political finger-pointing to show how serious we are about the matter at hand. Unfortunately, in this mix, the crux of the real problem remains unaddressed, till it comes to haunt us again.

Facebook, and other MNCs like Google, Amazon etc, do not need to collude in data theft. They already own our data. Facebook terms of use have the following conditions, “For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide licence to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.” And if you are a Facebook user outside the United States, “You consent to having your personal data transferred to and processed in the United States.”

Finally, your legal rights, “You will resolve any claim, cause of action or dispute (claim) you have with us ... exclusively in the US District Court for the Northern District of California or a state court located in San Mateo County, and you agree to submit to the personal jurisdiction of such courts for the purpose of litigating all such claims.”

Therefore, summoning Mark Zuckerberg will not solve the problem. We have accepted Facebook's terms to surrender our personal data because the government has no law to protect our data. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are only the visible manifestations of the more serious problem – how personal data of millions of internet and social media users in India is being used with impunity by technology companies, data brokers, commercial enterprises, analytical firms and governments, with scant regard to its larger impact on national integrity and security.

How did we get here? The cost of saving data has plummeted and more and more data is being stored by everyone, from governments to private companies to data brokers. As the volume of data grew, it was not possible to analyse this by human intervention. Therefore, sophisticated algorithms were created which helped in data analytics for creating individual profiles of users. These algorithms are essential for the billions of dollars that Amazon, Google and Facebook earn, but they are also opaque and focused only on keeping us hooked.

What we see on the Facebook is not necessarily what our friends post, or different viewpoints on a particular subject, but what the algorithm determines we should be seeing. Therefore, anything that we ‘like’ is going to be fed more to us. This creates an echo-chamber which further reinforces our beliefs and biases. It also sharpen divisions in society by playing on our fears.

The potential of social media is enormous and there was a quick jump from commerce to politics and then to warfare. Even as Cambridge Analytica was seducing politicians around the world with promises of voter influence, use of data as an information warfare tool was gaining ground. If companies can create sophisticated algorithms for psychographic profiling of individuals, why not nation states that have much greater resources at their disposal. The shockwaves caused by the alleged Russian attempts to influence voting in the US and other European countries is a clear indication of the power of information warfare.

In India, we are facing our own challenges. There is a vicious social media campaign in Kashmir directed from across our borders. There is no doubt that this will only grow in scale and scope in the future. There is also no doubt that we are ill-prepared for this kind of warfare.

The start point in this war has to be the protection of our data. The government recently released a White Paper on a ‘Data Protection Framework for India’. It was a comprehensive document but completely overlooked the national security perspective of data. The White Paper has raised some apprehensions on data localisation and the economic impact of a strict data protection law. While respecting this view, it must be also be stated that this is the argument often extended by foreign technology giants who wish to continue exploiting our data. The European Union, Russia, China and many other countries have extremely strict data laws and there has been no significant impact on their economy. In any event, we must value national security over commercial interests.

Former US President Barak Obama, in a BBC interview conducted by Prince Harry, said, “One of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases...The question has to do with how we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanisation of society”.

In India, we have our own vulnerabilities and fractures in society. Limiting how social media uses our personal data to increase these fissures is essential for protecting the character of India.​

(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)
| Edited by: Ahona Sengupta
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