As you sow, so shall you data harvest. In the great Facebook data privacy manthan, we forget that most of us have been wilfully blind to it for years, impatiently checking off those boxes that granted apps access to our data in our rush to figure out which historical figure or kind of Bengali ghost we are.
Now we seem to be in the middle of aglobal #JeSuisPrivacyWarrior moment armed with our own #DeleteFacebook hashtag. What’s truly ludicrous, though, is watching our political parties trying to outdo each other in their newfound concern for our privacy.
As BJP and Congress trade charges about whose app leaks the most, one cannot but help marvel at how everybody wants to climb on to the privacy bandwagon these days even in a country where a state government wants unique IDs for all its cows linked to the Aadhaar numbers of their owners! The fact is, in keeping with our respect for family values, we went seamlessly from the mai-baap sarkar to a Big Brother government. The Congress alleges the NaMo app is sharing your data with the “foreign hand”.
BJP says the Congress app is giving your data to Rahul Gandhi’s “friends in Singapore”. BJP quietly changed its sharing disclosure on the app and is trying to turn the heat on Congress by saying it could share your data with “Maoists, stone pelters, Chinese embassy and Cambridge Analytica”.
In all of this, the biggest discovery for most ordinary Indians — and many Congresspersons — is that the Congress party also has its own app! But this new disguise as data privacy crusaders is an ill-fitting fancy dress for our political parties, no matter how much they wax apoplectic on Twitter. During the UPA years, when two men posted derogatory content about Sonia Gandhi on Orkut, the government forced Google to turn their internet service provider (ISP) address over to it, and local authorities arrested them.
The current government, in its zeal to have one Aadhaar to bind them all, insists there’s no data privacy risk at all. The attorney general has told us that our data is safe behind walls that are 13 ft high and 5 ft thick protected by a 2048-bit encryption key that will take a supercomputer over 13 billion years to crack.
Seeds of Open Sesame
But a cybersecurity researcher tells me that claiming that encryption algorithms are strong is not any argument for citizen privacy. Because no one in their right criminal mind will try to get at Aadhaar data with brute force decryption. The risk, he says, is always the human at the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) who can be bribed or arm-twisted. The risk is in malware at the point of collection of biometric data. The risk is in what checks and balances exist on what a government can do with all the data it’s collecting in greedy gulps. Once our red tape raj collected millions of forms about everything that gathered dust somewhere. There was comfort in that incompetence. Now, we collect data that can be collated, rearranged and summoned up at will in ways we cannot imagine.
That’s what’s scary about Big Data. Silverfish will not destroy it.
Facebook, to its credit, at least belatedly is owning up to its failings. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says, “We have a responsibility to protect your information. If we can’t, we don’t deserve it.” India’s politicians make no such pretence of humility. The UIDAI seems to be more zealous about attacking those who claim security lapses, like tech website ZDNet, than in addressing bona fide security concerns. Instead of reassuring people about their worries about Aadhaar and privacy, minister of state for electronics and information technology, K J Alphons scoffs that those who complain about an invasion of privacy when it comes to Aadhaar, have no problem getting “naked for the white man” when it comes to getting a US visa. It reeks of entitlement that Alphons equates getting a US visa (which is a choice) with a poor student’s midday meal or a pension (which are necessities).
With Cambridge Analytica being the new global bad boy, Congress and BJP are falling over each other to establish their six degrees of separation from that company. GoI has also warned Facebook that it will summon Zuckerberg to India if data of Indian users is stolen. The party has said that any attempt to influence free and fair elections will be “neither appreciated nor permitted”.
Hoax Makes Votes
That right-wing trolls have been caught with their pants down more than once by fact-checkers like SM Hoax Slayer and Alt News peddling fake news to influence voters is obviously inconsequential. We should have no illusions about its new piety about fake news that “covertly or overtly influence free and fair elections”.
Make no mistake. All political parties are licking their lips after seeing what Cambridge Analytica allegedly did with Facebook data. If it, indeed, helped a Donald Trump become US president, they all want that Brahmastra as well. And those who believe these politicians have citizens’ best interests at heart when it comes to privacy, are being as wilfully thick as that 13 × 5 wall behind which their data lives in eternal security.
The writer is a former software engineer working on data encryption