You’re being watched

As virtual life becomes an extension of real life through extensive digitalisation, your government and digital monopolies like Google and Facebook are rendering the word ‘privacy’ meaningless

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
user

Tathagata Bhattacharya

It has been iterated time and again by the UIDAI that none other than those working with the agency has any access to the Aadhaar database. However, Nandan Nilekani, in an 2010 interview to this writer, while he was the UIDAI chairman, had said, “The UIDAI will partner with agencies such as Central and state departments, banks, insurance companies, Census of India, cellular operators and other agencies who will be ‘registrars’ for the UIDAI. Registrars will process UID applications and connect to the CIDR (Central Identities Data Repository) to de-duplicate resident information and receive UID numbers. These registrars can either be enrollers or will appoint agencies as enrollers who will interface with people seeking UID numbers. The UIDAI will also partner with service providers for authentication (of the data).”

So it is evident that one’s personal details including biometric information not only rests with the UIDAI but with the many ‘registrars’. Things have not changed much since.

Deepti Kapoor, a young lawyer who came back to Mumbai in December 2018 after finishing her studies abroad, had gone to a mobile service operator’s store for a fresh connection. “I was not carrying my Aadhaar card with me and was flatly refused. The next day, when I went with it, they verified its authenticity by taking my finger impression on an electronic thumbpad and by tallying it with the one in the database,” says Kapoor. “How will that be possible if they did not have access to the database?”

The possibility of the scrutiny of one’s personal life is simply endless. “Since banks to mobile service operators still insist on Aadhaar, it is possible for those who have access to the data repository to monitor your financial transactions, call records and even your physical movements as long as you use mobile phone-based applications. It is no rocket science,” says Kenneth Lobo (name changed) who used to work with Qualcomm in the US till 2013.

Monetising your interactions and choices

Writer Nilanjana Bhowmick who penned an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Yogi Adityanath becoming the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister was used to online trolling and bullying for her critical views. But what she was not ready for was a fictitious Facebook account holder divulging the sector she lived in the Delhi-NCR region and threatening to make her entire address public. “Since I hail from a different city, every document barring Aadhaar had my old residential address. And at that time, I had just moved to a different sector. There is no way he/she could know about it without accessing my Aadhaar information. How are trolls getting access to Aadhaar information? Is this the data security that UIDAI authorities are bragging about,” she wonders.

“The fear of being monitored is not at all unfounded. The Chinese government has just launched a Social Credit Scheme to rate the trustworthiness of its citizens. Aadhaar has all the ingredients to develop into a tool for the same, should the government decide to do so,” says Ritam Ghose, a technology professional with over a decade’s experience.

The entire debate about data security and how personal data is being used by collectors to pass on to third party vendors to influence people’s choices ranging from their votes to consumer preferences has of course been a raging issue following the role of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook nexus in influencing the US presidential elections and the Brexit polls in the UK came to light.

Former Facebook executive Anthony Garcia Martinez has come out in the open about how Facebook influences the preferences of its users, notwithstanding repeated denials by its founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg: “For two years I was charged with turning Facebook data into money, by any legal means. If you browse the internet or buy items in physical stores, and then see ads related to those purchases on Facebook, blame me. I helped create the first versions of that, way back in 2012.”


If you live a digital life, have a virtual presence on social media and use plastic instead of cash, every activity of yours can be monitored and analysed. If you are a doting consumer, your information will be processed and the right deals will reach you. If you are a political dissenter, you can be put under constant surveillance. Unless you decide to go off the grid, you can bid privacy goodbye

Your smartphone apps are stalking you

This happened to Tushar Senapati, who works in the development sector as a consultant in Hyderabad. “I was returning home to Bhubaneswar after nearly a year and called up some old friends. We discussed going on a trip to Kerala and created a Facebook group chat for the same. Surprisingly, from the next morning, I was being served details of hotels in Kerala via Facebook ads. My friends had the same experience. It was kind of spooky,” says the man in his late thirties.

That way, Tushar’s experience tallies with that of Hollywood actor Jim Carrey who tweeted on how he felt he was being stalked by his smartphone’s Facebook and Google apps. He decided to take his page off Facebook and dump the stocks he held in the company.

It was only towards the end of March, 2018 that Facebook users around the world discovered that Facebook’s Android app was snooping on extensive call data without them being aware. “When this feature is enabled, uploading your contacts also allows us to use information like when a call or text was made or received. This feature does not collect the content of your calls or text messages,” Facebook said, also saying that users voluntarily opted in when they were prompted. However, did the users understand what they were signing up for?

Garcia Martinez exposes what Zuckerberg has long been denying about Facebook influencing electoral outcomes. “Facebook deploys a political advertising sales team, specialised by political party, and charged with convincing deep-pocketed politicians that they do have the kind of influence needed to alter the outcome of elections…I was at Facebook in 2012, during the previous presidential race. The fact that Facebook could easily throw the election by selectively showing a Get Out the Vote reminder in certain counties of a swing state, for example, was a running joke,” he wrote in The Guardian.

Facebook has eventually admitted that about 126 million people saw Russian-sponsored ads intended to sway the 2016 US election. The company has also admitted that its algorithms recommended content created by Russian operatives. Initially Zuckerberg had rubbished these allegations, saying the idea of Facebook impacting the elections was “crazy.” Now, there has been an obvious climbdown in face of mounting evidence.


“I was returning home to Bhubaneswar after nearly a year and called up some old friends. We discussed going on a trip to Kerala and created a Facebook group chat for the same. Surprisingly, from the next morning, I was being served details of hotels in Kerala via Facebook ads. My friends had the same experience. It was kind of spooky,” Tushar Senapati

Former Rajya Sabha TV Editor-in-chief Gurdeep Singh Sappal wrotes on his Facebook wall: “Today, as I landed in Bangalore, I got a notification from Facebook. It showed several of my Facebook friends and gives details of places they visited in Bangalore in last 2-3 years, along with the month of visit!

I have cross-checked with a couple of friends. They were shocked and confirmed that the details are correct. Both say that didn’t even share it on Facebook. Yet I know it.

So much for privacy!!”

The development of complicated algorithms that decode everything from your consumer preferences to your mental state on one hand and official diktats like making Aadhaar mandatory for nearly all services and schemes on the other have put privacy in peril. In today’s wired world, every piece of digital signature that you leave behind is tracked and stored. Google, for example, stores every location you have been to ever since you started using its service on your phone. Facebook was recently caught storing videos deleted by its users. Of course, the company blamed it on faulty applications and bugs.

The truth lies someplace else. If you live a digital life, have a virtual presence on social media and use plastic instead of cash, every activity of yours can be monitored and analysed. If you are a doting consumer, your information will be processed and the right deals will reach you. If you are a political dissenter, you can be put under constant surveillance. Unless you decide to go off the grid, you can bid privacy goodbye.

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines