Who Controls My Data?

Data Privacy and Big Tech - Adarsh Badri

Big Tech and Data Privacy: The Way Forward

There is a saying, “when we get something for free, then we end up being the products.” In the age of information, all the clicks we’ve left behind — and would leave behind in future — are being (will be) used to analyze us, rate us, package us, and sell it back to us.

In a 2019 article, the New York Times outlined how each of us has “secret consumer scores”: hidden rating that determines how long we wait on hold when calling a business, and what type of service we receive. A Tinder algorithm of sorts — a low score sends you back the queue, and the high score will fetch you an elite treatment. The society we live in today is witnessing an enormous amount of data flow, and with it, a rampant surge in algorithm systems that make decisions for us without us knowing whether these decisions are fair for us or not.

How Does The Big-Tech Collect Our Data?

Big Techs, also known by the acronym ‘FAAMG’ (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google), are competing with one another to harvest as much data as they can and sell it to third-party applications and businesses. Big Techs have acquired extraordinary amounts of data on individuals through internet browsers, email, weather applications, maps, and satellite navigations. These firms document how we browse, what food we enjoy, where we buy our socks, which music soothes us, what movies we watch, where we travel and how we let the world know about it.

Google contains 4.14 GigaBytes of data on me. (Those who wish to download their Google data may use this link.) When you download a copy of your Google data, you will see a folder containing multiple subfolders, each containing multiple .json files.  In a folder labelled location history, Google kept a history of my monthly location data since 2016 — with great details about whether I was walking, or running, or tilting, or cycling, or in the vehicle, along with timestamps of the activity, location name, latitude and longitude.

Another folder recorded the ads I may have seen based on the websites I visited. In another, the files contained the details of the sites I have visited, images & videos I have searched for, apps I have opened and for how long. Even the recordings of my Google voice search are listed in yet another file, along with the date and time. This is not just a story of Google.

In the New York Times report, Facebook was charged with holding a lot of personal data on their databases. Instagram, along with its parent company Facebook, holds data on removed friends, phone book, blocked contacts, pictures, chat conversations, photos & videos sent and received, among other things. Instagram, of course, retains your search history to show targeted ads.

Even, Alexa is listening — carefully. According to a 2019 Bloomberg report, Amazon Inc. employs thousands of people to help the Alexa digital assistant powering Echo speakers. Amazon, however, claims that they use the users’ requests to Alexa to train their “speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” While we, the users of web services, maybe generating enormous amounts of data, we have no control over it. In turn, the Big Techs constantly monitor how we produce data and then recreate us – our choices – to make us better products.

We’re in an era of data collection and surveillance — whether we opt for it or not in several instances. Panopticon, that is what Michel Foucault would have called it. To gain a competitive edge over others, these companies have been hungry for hyper-personalisation of user data. As a result, they want to know everything about a particular consumer (his/her needs, desires, and behaviours) to make useful recommendations. It is this quest for hyper-personalisation, that leads to misuse of user data. A classic case of data misuse?

Cambridge Analytica Scandal

In the early March of 2018, two leading newspapers The Guardian and The New York Times carried out a chilling report on how political consulting firm Cambridge Analyticathat worked for the Trump campaign, had harvested personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent to “build a powerful software program to predict and influence choices at the ballot box”.

The data was collected through an application called thisisyourdigitallife, built by academic Aleksandr Kogan of Cambridge University. Kogan, in collaboration with Cambridge Analytica, had paid hundreds of thousands of users to take a personality test and agreed to have their data collected for academic use. However, the app also collected the data of test-takers’ Facebook friends, leading to the accumulation of unprecedented amounts of data.

Cambridge Analytica, according to some estimates, had harvested the private information of the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their consent, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social media’s history. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal was a clear expose of how third-party developers easily accessed user’s data, who in turn, sold it to companies that misused this information.

Now, we are in 2021. And since the 2018 Cambridge Analytica Scandal, user data privacy has become mainstream. These data privacy concerns have put Big Techs under the radar of privacy watchdogs.

In the last few years, we have seen (in many instances) how the Big Techs have mishandled consumer data or mined data without the user consent. Data privacy concerns do not just stop with personal privacy but encompass a wide array of issues related to what data protection means to democracy and who owns our data.

What Can We Do About Data Privacy?

Data privacy is centred around how data is collected, stored, managed, and shared with other third-party entities. It focuses on the individuals’ right to know the purpose of data collection, privacy preferences, as well as compliance with the privacy laws.

There are three ways of dealing with data privacy concerns – each interconnected and overlap with the other. At first, the onus of data privacy lies on the individual data users. On the personal front, we need to know what is personal to us and share the data only when necessary with entities we know we can trust.

When we open our emails, we should not click on links embedded in unsolicited emails as they may open an unsecured and harmful webpage. Always pay attention to the URL and ensure that it begins with “https://”, as “s” indicates that the URL is encrypted and secure. Do not give unnecessary access to cookies — and delete the cookies from your browser from time to time. These are some of the precautionary measures you (the users of data) may take while securing your data.

Secondly, we need our governments to take the necessary steps to regulate Big Tech and protect individual rights to data privacy. There’s GDPR (the General Data Protection Regulation) 2018, in the European Union that gives more control to the individuals over the personal data. According to the law, the data controllers must not collect any personal data without the consent of the data subjects. And that they must disclose any data collection, declare its lawful basis and purpose, and state how long data is being retained and if it is being shared with any third parties, or outside of the EEA.

In 2020, California State of the United States legislated a new data privacy law i.e., CCPA (California’s Consumer Privacy Act) to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection for its residents. The law empowers its residents to know what personal data is being collected about them and/or whether it is sold to third-party entities, and request these business entities to delete the personal data of its consumers. The proposed Personal Data Protection Bill in India seeks to regulate the collection, storage, and handling of personal data. However, there are looming fears about how these laws might turn the country into an “Orwellian state” — as a result of an exemption for government bodies to access personal data. There is more regulation likely to come in 2021.

Third, we need to innovate newer ways of dealing with data products, with primacy to data privacy. For instance, in 2018 Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank piloted a card with dynamic CVV, where the card’s CVV changed after every 30 to 60 minutes. The dynamic CVV technology is created to fight card-not-present fraud that has been on the rise for years. In another example, we can see that passwords are replaced with cryptographic keys and multiple layers of biometrics.

Signal, a California-based messaging application, run by a not-for-profit organisation, offers users end-to-end encryption. Signal’s “Sealed Sender” feature makes conversations more secure as the platform cannot access private messages or media, or store them on their servers. While WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption for messages, it can access other private information — another good reason to shift sides.

In another such innovation, Presearch is a decentralised, open-source search engine with enhanced privacy features. Built on the blockchain, Presearch rewards its users with PRE crypto tokens. They do not track or store any information or searches, as a result, the users control their data. On the similar lines, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, has led an exciting project called “Solid” (derived from “social linked data”) that aims to radically change the way web applications work today and empower users of data, their freedom to choose where their data resides, and who is allowed to access it.

Solid is all about PODS – personal online data stores. Here, an individual has PODS in which all the personal data is stored. And you may choose to host the data wherever you may wish to. Instead of uploading data to remote services, the services are granted permission to access the data that lives in one of your PODS.

Interesting, isn’t it?

Picture: Yang Jing on Unsplash

Can We Separate Art From the Artist?

separate the art and artist

As I was strolling around the art faculty of Delhi University, I encountered two of my coursemates — intensely — conversing about the dilemma in the separation of art from the artist. I joined along. One of them pointed out that Woody Allen is a gifted director and also a sex offender. In that case, “Would you still choose to watch Manhattan?”

To which, I said: “Yes, absolutely.” After much deliberation on this ethical dilemma, I’ve come to believe that there is no one absolute answer.

#MeToo Movement

The historical #MeToo movement, which gained momentum in 2017, has thrown a spotlight into the men-of-art and their unlicensed abuse of power to sexually molest and harass others. Roman Polanski assaulted a minor; Harvey Weinstein predated women; R. Kelly was videotaped having sex and urinating on a minor; Woody Allen was accused of molesting his adoptive daughter; Pablo Picasso has molested and hurled abuses at women all his life; and so forth. However, each of these morally-repugnant-individuals has produced works that marvel the spectators for ages. 

Polanski’s movie The Pianist is one of the most illustrious depiction of the world war and human emotions. Or Woody Allen’s 1977 release Annie Hall is an aesthetical representation of romance and comedy. Or Picasso’s 1937 painting Guernica embodies the most powerful critique of war. As a result of complexity emanating due to the impact, the art has on the spectators’ emotions, and the unjustifiable actions of the artist, it becomes an intrinsic ethical dilemma. The question is: Can we separate art from its artist? The art-artist conundrum has found two — conflicting — poles of opinions. Those who believe that art could be separated from artist argue that art is something meaningful and it needs to be embraced. And the artist needs to be condemned or punished, not as a creator of the art, but as an individual who has committed the crime. They argue that you can be a bad guy and still create good art. So here, they believe, art isn’t an issue, but the actions of the artist are.

The Death of The Author

One of the most profound arguments comes from the postmodernist school of thought. For some of them, the artist wasn’t just separate from the art, but the artist was dead. Roland Barthes titled his declaration in the form of “The Death of the Author” in 1967. The author doesn’t create a text, Barthes argued, but the reader by reading it. Using his premise, one can argue, every time spectators encounter an art, they make it new, in a way that the artist no longer controls a definitive, final interpretation. One of the colleagues at my university explains: “The art provokes emotions and the artist no longer is a party to those emotions.” As a result, supporting/appreciating art is not equivalent to encouraging/endorsing the actions of the artist.

Art As The Product of Social Privileges

Those who believe that art cannot be separated from art, argue: “Art doesn’t exist in its own altruistic, alternate universe.” It is a product of societal privileges. As Maria Gracia, a senior editor of The ARTery writes, “The art that we uphold as genius or indispensable from human history is also of this world — tethered to and a product of existing systems of power, like capitalism and white supremacy.”

To put it bluntly, sales of the art directly benefit the artists. Watching Kevin Spacey directly benefits him. Reading William Goulding directly benefits him. Buying a DVD of a Woody Allen movie directly benefits him. Thus, individual artists and their art are a part of a collective whole defining our socio-economic transactions. Writer Roxanne Gay in her essay “Can I Enjoy the Art but Denounce the Artist?” argues that we should not overlook an artist’s sins and not separate the art from the artist. She writes, “We can no longer worship at the altar of creative genius while ignoring the price all too often paid for that genius.” As Jacob Kuppermann puts it: “By creating a culture that excuses the misdeeds of the powerful, talented or rich, we make it harder for their victims, from fellow celebrities to anonymous teenagers, to retain their dignity in society.”

Individual’s Proximity and The Art 

Broadly speaking, we elicit three divergent responses to the art-artist conundrum: Yes. No. And it’s complicated. I propose that each of these responses emanate from two parameters. One, the individual’s proximity to the victim and the cause. Two, the individual’s affinity to the artist and the art. Let’s suppose, I like listening to an artist who is also a sex-offender. Here, my three plausible scenarios would be: First, if I like the music and I do not have as much proximity with the victim, I would certainly choose to say, “We can separate art from the artist”. Second, if I have propinquity towards the victim, or am sympathetic to their cause, then, I would abandon listening to the artist altogether. In that case, one can argue that we cannot separate art from the artist. In the third scenario, where I like the art and am sympathetic towards the victim and their cause, I am more likely to be stuck in a dilemma. “How can the artist do this?” In a situation like that, I am more likely to listen to music while also feeling guilty about it. Therefore, it’s complicated. Thus, the answer to the art-artist conundrum is deeply personal. There is no way to produce a collective moral standard to arrive at a conclusive distinction between art and the artist. That being said, we can also not sufficiently establish that the artist is what provides value to the art. In the art-artist conundrum, it’s the individuals that hold a moral compass for themselves while arriving at an answer. And there may be no answer to this debate.

Image: David Giesbrecht/Netflix 

The Morality of Saving Lives and COVID-19

The morality of saving lives

What is one of the most difficult tasks of a doctor in dealing with the pandemic? I say, it is the dreadful morality choice the doctor ought to make while saving someone at the cost of the other. This has been an intrinsic moral dilemma for centuries of human civilisation. Even as we begin, it is imperative to make one thing clear at the start: societies have scare resources. As a result of resource-constraint, the doctors are forced to ration ventilators, life-saving drugs, dialysis machines and the staff qualified to operate them.

Rationing ventilators has become a new normal in a world grappling with COVID-19. The hospitals get to decide which patient should receive access to mechanical ventilation and other medical procedures. Such an exercise often decides the fate of patients. It is excruciating to think of doctors making moral decisions of which patient gets to live and who dies.

Moral dilemmas are as antique as the medicinal practices themselves. However, in times of crisis, these dilemmas become more evident, unique and urgent. Thus, it is essential to take a look at the concept of morality and the dilemmas that we grapple with in our daily lives. We, humans, inherently belong to one of the two schools of moral philosophy: Millsean utilitarianism and Kantian deontology.

Utilitarian Philosophy and Doctors

Utilitarianism, often also known as consequentialism, was articulated by 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham and popularized by John Stuart Mill. In 1776, in his work, A Fragment on Government, Bentham invoked what he defined as a “fundamental axiom, it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” Benthamite utilitarianism surmises on “ends justify the means” morality.

Immanuel Kant wrote Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals in 1785. He argued that in order for one to act in a morally right way, one must act from duty. Kant argued that it is not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong, but the motives that enabled the action. He concludes what truly good is: “Nothing in the world – indeed nothing even beyond the world – can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except goodwill.”

Deontology and Kant

Deontology is a normative ethical theory that defines, as Kant had propounded, the morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong and not on what it achieves. Kant notes that a person has goodwill when he “acts out of respect for the moral law.” And that there are certain universal moral laws that are the guiding principle behind the ethical behaviour known as the “categorical imperative.” Deontological philosophy argues that it is “the means that justify the ends.” One of the most influential deontological works in recent times comes from Harvard philosopher John Rawls, in his work, A Theory of Justice propounds a social-contract based on the “veil of ignorance.”

In this essay, I argue that humans are not consistently inclined to a singular school of morality, they shift their goalposts based on circumstances they are encountered with. Let me illustrate this with two ethical dilemmas:

Imagine you are a doctor, and there are five patients in dire need of transplants to live. And each of them will require a different part of the human body. In the next ward, a healthy patient with a mild headache is unconscious due to a dosage of a drug. So, would you kill the healthy patient and harvest his organs to save five lives? Most of us will utterly reject the idea of killing a healthy person. In here, no matter what the consequence of the action is, it is morally wrong to kill a healthy human. Here, we are all Kantians.

Let us now imagine that there is a limited supply of a life-saving drug. Six people will certainly die if they are not treated with the drug. But, one patient requires all of the drugs if he were to survive. But, the other five would require only one-fifth of it. What would you, as a doctor, do in this scenario? Many of us would administer the drug to the five patients as it would fetch the maximum utility. At this point, we are consequentialists.

Taurek and Numbers 

John Taurek, in 1977, in a paper titled “Should the Numbers Count?” presented the above scenario and argued against the general notion of saving five patients than one. To Prof. Taurek, numbers don’t matter. He responds:

“Here are six human beings. I can empathize with each of them. I would not like to see any of them die. But I cannot save everyone. Why not give each person an equal chance to survive? Perhaps I could flip a coin. Heads, I give my drug to these five. Tails, I give it to this one. In this way, I give each of the six persons a fifty-fifty chance of surviving.”

Prof. Taurek adds, “I cannot see how or why the mere addition of numbers should change anything.” However, it becomes evident that Taurek underestimates the number-game a little too much. What if, the calculation was one life against a hundred, a thousand, or a million? Would numbers still not matter? One of the most compelling critiques came from Derek Parfit. In his article “Innumerate Ethics”, Parfit argues that equality meant giving equal consideration to each person’s life, rather than equalising their chances of survival. Parfit wrote, “We should save more people” as each person counts for his life and more people count for more.

Morality and the COVID-19

There are two schools of thought within medical departments about the action plan about the virus. One school of thought preaches that the resources must aim at guaranteeing intensive treatment to patients with a higher chance of survival. It privileges the “higher life expectancy” over those with less chance of survival. In other words, relatively young patients with health problems are prioritized over the elderly and sick.

Another school, deontological ethics, prioritises the elderly and sick over those who are less likely to be affected by the virus. Since the death-rate of the older population is high, the preachers of deontology believe that with proper care and treatment they are reducing the number of deaths. They argue that patients with lower risk are more likely to survive without proper medical treatment, but that is not true in the case of elderly people.

Even as we learn to live with the virus, there is a grave challenge to the inherent human-beliefs more than ever. John Authers, a leading business editor, wrote, “The pandemic is also a test of the strength of the ideas humans choose to help them form moral judgements and guide personal and social behaviour.”


The crisis challenges our abilities to justify what is right and what is wrong. More so, it questions our ability to interpret the purpose of human existence. The estranged society as it exists is its next target. It is at this point, we realise that humans are a product of unequal resource privileges, where one’s garbage is another’s gold. The constant fear engulfing our lives about the known and unknown strangers that might infect us with the virus.

The privilege of justifying our ability to quarantine the population – rich, and poor alike; at times, enabling the poor to toil for their livelihood and battle the virus; telling the destitute, elderly and sick that it is the time for you to sacrifice yourselves for the benefit of the larger society; spewing hatred in the name of primetime news;  watching the migrant women walk a thousand miles with babies wrapped around their shoulders; enabling the labourers to sleep on the railway track even as the train passes over them.

The virus shows us the world we have created – gravely unequal and subtly cruel. It is the marvellous creation of thousands of years of humanity’s obsession with greed and competition. Coronavirus has challenged the ability of humans to protect human society. Vulnerability has become the cornerstone of today’s world. In the post-COVID-19 world, humans ought to become human first, only then humanity will thrive. It is time to rethink and reconceptualise an equal and just society.

Picture Courtesy: Getty Images