The Journey Of My Private Online Data

This article The Journey Of My Private Online Data by Anuradha Goyal, author, and founder of IndiTales.com was first published by the New Indian Express newspaper on January 20, 2021.

WhatsApp’s privacy policy update has suddenly brought the long-overdue focus to data security. In a rush to switch, most people miss questioning – Will shifting to a new App really solve the problem? What stops Facebook or its competition from buying the next big App? Nothing. Apps that are free today will have to make money eventually. How else do they make money without using the data they collect and invest in storing while enabling us to converse as well as to conduct business for free. Did our primary school teacher not tell us ‘No Free Lunches’?

Private Online Data

Google ‘Data Sellers in India’, and you get paid Ads selling you High Networth individuals data, Car owners data, Doctors data, Students data, and of course the data of the employees of big organizations. Most databases come with lakhs of records while data records of mobile users range in crores. They promise to be sorted on various parameters like pin code, salary, etc. Price for simple data is as low as Rs 3000-8000. Additional information like my WhatsApp Activity, DND status comes with an extra fee.

I checked a few of these websites. All they have is a phone number or a contact form. They manage their own anonymity quite well. I clicked through their pages to see if any of them mentions their sources of data or claims legally sourced data. I could find none in the top Google results. Google is making money from these Ads and has obviously missed the check on the legal or ethical status of the businesses they advertise.

Marketing – Private Online Data

No wonder, I get a call every afternoon from random call centers of various banks or insurance companies on my DND registered numbers. Every time I ask them where they got my number from, the answer is – we have sources that we cannot disclose. I wondered if legal organizations can get away with these answers. Well, these are all outsourced contractors who can be disowned at any moment.

I assume my internet usage patterns are still to make it to the mass market. It is probably available in the deep alleys of the darknet for a much higher price, assuring the anonymity of the buyers and sellers as they disrobe my anonymity.

Spyware – Private Online Data

Next, I googled for Spyware for mobile phones. Thankfully I landed on many legal apps that claim parental controls software. Along with it came the stories where spyware has been used to track the digital activity of partners and competitors. Apps for as low as one dollar a day promise you complete anonymity as the data from the tracked mobile is shared with you every 5 minutes. It seems there is no legal framework to stop these apps from transmitting all activities on my phone to a third party, including my voice calls or anything that my phone can hear.

Sources of most of these data would trackback to our consents given by default to various social media or mobile apps. When do we have the time, inclination, or legal know-how to understand the fine print that silently takes our consent to use data when the eyes are fixated on freebies? Security breaches leading to data leaks have been reported by many major companies including social media platforms. Insiders handling large data in places like retail stores, banks, and e-commerce platforms are obviously involved in the chain somewhere.

Regulations

It goes without saying that regulators need to be more vigilant and pro-active. Before that, they need to be better informed about technology curves and their potential repercussions. They are the reason why WhatsApp does not share European region data with Facebook. While in India permission to your data with its parent company is the necessary condition to use. Having said that, we must remember this will always be a cat and mouse chase story between lawmakers and manipulators. Once a regulation restricts, other loopholes or more advanced technologies will show up. The cycle will go on.

Ironically, a lot of unsolicited emails in my mailbox land up from various ministries of the Government of India. Where is Government or its appointed agencies sourcing my data from? If the answer is data that I voluntarily shared for things like Aadhar, I still did not give them permission to intrude my mailbox. Is it not the indicator of lack of knowledge among the very people who have the power to make and implement laws?

Benefits & Risks

The ease of connecting, negotiating, approving, and closing deals on WhatsApp has killed email culture to a large extent. I hope this sudden focus on privacy norms would bring some mindfulness into our communications.

It’s time we critically look at our own over-communication. Do we really need to exchange so many images and unverified forwards? We rarely object or restrict people in our networks, whose only role is to forward everything they receive. Can we smartly and intelligently use the tools available to us for free? Or be ready to pay for them and our privacy?

Think about it next time you mindlessly forward that witty message.

The Journey Of My Private Online Data published in New Indian Express Newspaper
Original op-ed article published in New Indian Express on 20 January 2021

Edited for this online publication.

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