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The Myth of Privacy

India banned Tik-Tok and 59 other Chinese apps for not assuring the government about data privacy. Then the government banned another 47 apps for similar reasons. Now the USA is following similar strategies. Many Indians rejoiced at the fact that Tik-Tok was banned. Ruling party wholeheartedly echoed how this move is going to hurt China and their economy. But in all these celebrations, the truth is on the backseat. Now, let me make this clear: I am not in any sense opposing the ban on the apps that do not comply with the government’s policies. Any business that intends to operate in a country must oblige with the laws of that country. So, what issues do I have in this matter? I don’t have any problem with the ban itself, but the portrayal of it. The way it’s been covered on some “News” outlets is inaccurate at best and misleading at worst. Here are a few things to consider:

The Myth of Privacy

       Wherever an issue of privacy or data breach appears in the news, we love to discuss it with friends and family, put up Instagram stories, tweet about it, tred a hashtag to boycott a certain platform and then we forget about it before next monday.

Remember Cambridge Analytica? When we were so mad at Facebook that it allowed a company to access our information to draw analytics that could help some elements in election? Aren’t you still using Facebook? (Be it just for checking the upcoming birthdays!). This happens over and over, everytime. So let’s start with privacy itself.

So, in real life your privacy is 100% intact when you are sitting in a completely empty room with no windows or doors to peek through. However we cannot function i.e. work, earn money, socialize, enjoy without getting out of that room. So, we willingly give away some of our privacy in return of one of these activities. Now, apply the same logic to the digital world.If you are connecting your digital devices to any network you can’t have complete privacy. Yet we still connect our phones and computers every day, don’t we? We use social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter to connect with people. We use messaging tools like iMessage and WhatsApp to talk to people. We use Google as well as YouTube to find information on almost anything. We also shop most of the things we need in our day to day life from Amazon. Why don’t we walk to shops and buy stuff we need all the time? Why don’t we walk or drive to the friends place and talk with them instead of video calling them every now and then? Heck, we don’t even bother to buy a real newspaper instead of consuming our news from twitter and news websites. Nobody has forced us to do all these things. We do them because the shop will probably have a queue for checkout, the newspaper might propagate Coronavirus and the friend is currently in another country!! So, simply put, we want easy access, convenience and speed in every task that we perform. Which is why we use this thing called the internet, and all the apps that enable us to get things done faster and from home. To achieve this we give access to our contacts, our location as well as our files without a second thought.

Let’s take a look at our phones for example. Most of us are using android phones. When we install any new app on our phone we allow it access to some of the features in our phone. The most common of these permissions are access to location, camera, files, contacts and messages. So, we basically give the app that app an access to every data point that could tell the app more about us. We are also prompted by the app that it can’t work efficiently until we grant all these permissions. So we have no choice but to allow all that access. Is it illegal that the apps ask for access to serve us? Absolutely not!! They are totally within their legal rights to ask for accessing all those permissions, and you have the right to reject a few of them and have the app not perform all the tasks or not use the app at all. However, you can look for as many options as you want, every one of them will ask you for similar kind of access permissions.


Why do these apps need all that access?

Many of these apps have built their features around the functionalities of the smartphone. These features cannot work without permission to access these functionalities.
For example, if Instagram doesn’t have the camera permission you won’t be able to click photos or videos to post stories. If you don’t allow location permission, you’ll have to manually search the location to tag the photo in.
This way, working of every application in your phone depends on 1 or more permissions given by you.
So you don’t have any choice in allowing the permissions.
On the other hand, most of these apps are free for you to use. They have to generate revenue somewhere else to continue functioning and profit from their business.

Which means you give these apps data about the movies you like, the books you read, the food you eat, the places you go to, the electronics you buy, etc etc. With this data, they can help other businesses show you ads that are targeted specially for your interests so that you are more likely to purchase that product. After that, you also pay with your attention and time with the pre-roll / mid-roll ads that appear on YouTube or Spotify and sponsored posts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Ultimately, if you want to use these apps, you will have to give away these permissions in one way or another.

We can’t ‘not give permissions’, so what do we do?

To live in the connected world we will have to comply with the gatekeepers. So, isn’t there anything that we can do to safeguard our privacy to some extent? Of course we can! Here are a few things to focus on: Know that there won’t be absolute privacy: First accept that unless you decide to give up on all the worldly pleasures, you have to give up on your data in some way. You cannot achieve 100% privacy while living in the real world. Acceptance is the first step. Educate yourself on what access is given: Every time you install an app or register on a website or use social login (login with Google or Facebook), the app or the website is supposed to let you know the information that they are going to access from you. See if an app is asking unnecessary permissions and learn to disable those permissions from settings (Android lets you choose if an app should have a location permission all the time or only when the app is open). When you use Google login to register on a new website, Google shows you the personal data that the third party website is asking access of. Most of the times we click on allow without even looking at that list. Next time, give it a proper look and see what kind of access is given. In the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the data collected from the users was mostly gained from likes of the apps that tell you “What Hogwarts ghost are you?” and people willfully grant them access to their own email id, interests as well as friends list. It was therefore not illegal of Cambridge Analytica to use that information to create user personas that could be targeted in ads to push political agenda in 2016 USA elections. When this information came to light, people were mad at Facebook, when they should have been mad at themselves for being careless while using all those Facebook games and apps. (Obviously, it was unethical of Facebook to not admit to knowledge of users information being used to promote political views immediately, but it wasn’t illegal as the users’ consent was there.) This example teaches us why we should always be aware of the information we are giving away. Decide if the is bargain worth the access granted: Every time you are installing a new app or signing in to a website, always see if the services you are getting from them are good enough for the information you are giving away. Don’t be stingy with your personal information, unless you are some celebrity who values the privacy above everything else. You will have to give something away to get a service. Remember if the company that you are giving your information to may sell it to some marketing company then spams you with daily emails. Learn who you can rely on: Reliability is the most important thing to factor in while doing anything on the internet. We share our credit card information with Amazon and Netflix and let them charge us recurring payments because we believe that they won’t charge us unnecessarily, and if they do we can dispute that and hold them accountable. We also use Facebook, WhatsApp or iMessage to talk with our family, friends and colleagues and trust that they won’t share our personal chats with anyone unnecessarily. We do these things because we Amazon, Facebook, Google and all the other big companies have built their reliability in our minds over the years. Reliability is often neglected for price (especially in India!). We have always known that data security is an answered question with Chinese software and manufacturers. However their unquestionably competitive pricing schemes lured us in and the Governments over the years. Now that we have a border conflict with China, the Government and the people have suddenly realized that their data may be used against them come a military conflict in future. Thing to consider here is, if we have any conflict with the USA in future, we might have to turn off all the mobiles in our country as the owners of both the major operating systems used in phones are from the USA. So, this reliability factor can also change overnight. Extra caution when dealing with money: In the last few years, while transfer of money is made simple by the faster digital payments like UPI or the Digital Wallets, it has also caused the ease of scamming people. These scams are usually targeted at older people as they are less savvy with all the new tech. Education of how online payments work and how to avoid scams is extremely necessary in the new world. Being cautious but not skeptical of online payments is the key!! The intention of this essay was to clarify how privacy works in the new, more connected digital age and how to manage privacy while being connected at all times. I’m hoping that you will try to understand privacy and audit the access given to your personal data instead of being fearful of the digital world. I’ll soon write an article about using the internet while maintaining considerable privacy, which I’ll link here. Thank You!!

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