Opinion: Compromising our data, the new gold

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Jazib Mehmood, Student Jamia Ahmadiyya Ghana

The culture of the new world demands that we share our lives with the rest of the world in a rather revealing fashion. We contribute to the survival of social media by constantly feeding it information about ourselves, knowingly and unknowingly. But what we don’t realise is just how valuable our data is!

Over two years ago, it was found that we create 2.5 million terabytes of data every single day. With more people using the internet today, that figure has most certainly increased. No wonder data is called the oil of the 21st century!

Data is known to now be more valuable than oil. By having access to the heartbeat and mentality of nearly everyone on the planet, the big tech companies at Silicon Valley have given us a visual representation of what an Orwellian government would be like. This Orwellian government – unlike Big Brother – doesn’t openly dictate what people do but is rather disguised as the greatest invention of the Information Age.

There is no doubt that tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook have made our lives easier. Google has made access to information as easy as it could possibly be imagined. Amazon delivers us products to our doorstep while all we have to do is literally lift a finger.

Facebook has given us products like WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram, which have made communication across continents incredibly easy. Twitter has created a global platform where everyone has a voice. What many people might not know is that Google collects incredible amounts of data on its users and has access to incredibly private information which users themselves offer. By expanding services across devices and buying services like Android and YouTube, they have access to more data more than ever. This is not without repercussions.

Google has been fined more than $9 billion since 2017 for violating antitrust laws. Amazon Web Services (AWS), which nearly half the internet runs on, makes enormous revenue and generated net sales of $25.7 billion in the 2018 fiscal year. Amazon is thought to be a global monopoly. Even though Europe is now using anti-trust laws to keeps these companies in check, the rest of the world is slow on the uptake.

Facebook, which bought WhatsApp for $19 billion, is completely free to use just like WhatsApp and has been convicted numerous times for playing with the privacy of users.

The reason I have mentioned the price for which WhatsApp was bought is that one wonders that a product clearly incredibly valuable to Facebook is seemingly free for us to use. This begs the question – how does WhatsApp earn profit?

Remember, when something is free to use, more often than not, you are the product that is being sold. Facebook also owns Instagram, which collects a lot of data on you which you supply willingly by using the app and entering private information on it.

Twitter is not without its privacy flaws either. And as the past few years has revealed, Twitter can pose quite a few legal risks as well. Yet there is an alarming reliance on these services. We have sold ourselves for convenience. The enormity of these companies makes it impossible for smaller tech companies to compete with these giants.

When there is a lack of competition, there is no motivation to make products safer for consumers to use. Why should Facebook care if your privacy is respected? Where else will you and the other two billion people chat and share their lives? The reason they get away with scandalous miscarriages of justice is simple. They are providing us with an irreplaceable service, whose benefits no one can deny and whose disadvantages are made disputable.

Germany’s top antitrust enforcer, Andreas Mundt, asked a room full of lawyers, academics and regulators last year to imagine a wall filled with their personal information collected by Facebook and Google. He told them to picture it stocked with their data broken up into categories like finances, location, relationships and hobbies. “That is you”, Mr Mundt said. “And I promise you this wall knows you better than your wife.”

Few listened to Mr Mundt when, a few years ago, he began raising alarms about the data collected by the tech giants. While online services like Facebook and Google did not charge a dime, people paid a high price by giving the companies so many personal details, he argued. And the people had no choice because the companies had no real competitors. (New York Times, 7 July 2019)

Let’s face it! No one bothers to read the terms and conditions. The Brexit scandal and the allegations on Facebook for interfering in the 2016 Presidential election and the Cambridge Analytica scandal are only a few examples in a vast array of allegations, which the tech giants have faced over the years. But the reason so little is being done is that many people are okay with their data being stored by these companies and used in ways more or less unknown to them.

Perhaps even you, the reader, feel that it doesn’t really affect you since you’re not doing anything wrong. Many people merely shrug and go “well, what can you do? They provide a service I rely on”.

Others argue that since they provide an essential service some allowances must be made so that they can do their job well. But I ask: like the dozens of sites that watch your every move online, would you let dozens of people watch your every move in real life? Or your children who basically live online? Or your family and friends? The answer must surely be no. And yet, there is something about peering at life through a window that can ultimately abstract us from our actions and limit any meaningful confrontation with the consequences, says Edward Snowden in his book, Permanent Record.

“Ultimately, saying that you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don’t care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. … Or that you don’t care about freedom of religion because you don’t believe in God”, another argument Snowden makes in his book.

Many people don’t even know what exactly Cambridge Analytica did or how exactly they interfered with elections or the scope of their interference. Carole Cadwalladr, who was a key player in revealing the crimes of that data company, said, “We have sufficient information to know that Facebook’s platform was used to subvert and undermine elections in the US, the UK and many other countries”. (The Guardian, 26 October 2019)

Before the rise of social media, we didn’t feel like telling the world what we had for breakfast or what our favourite book was or what we liked to do in our free time. We were private people. Our photos remained within family and friends. We felt no need to show them to our neighbours or tell the whole neighbourhood what we did on a specific day or what interesting pursuits we were involved in.

So why do we do it now? Why do we feed this toxic culture? Why do we not care that a triumvirate of tech companies i.e. Google, Facebook and Amazon are perpetually documenting our every move?

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa has also drawn the attention of our Jamaat towards the vices of social media and how it can drive one to materialistic pursuits. Perhaps the idea of having more followers of Instagram heals some insecurities we have of ourselves or maybe more retweets strengthens our notion of social acceptance. Whatever the case, this cycle is addictive and it is a bottomless vessel.

This is why Huzooraa has always advised us to use these technologies with caution. Huzooraa has expressed his concerns over Facebook that it “encourages immodesty” and “shatters the boundaries among people, boundaries from one another, boundaries around secrets. It exposes secrets and invites indecency.” (Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, Social Media, p. 36)

While Huzooraa has not condemned Facebook outright, he has stated that “it has more harms and very few benefits.” (Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmadaa, Social Media, p. 39)

In our world today, you cannot live without having some form of these new technologies. If you do, you’re cut out from the world. And if there’s something people fear, it’s the fear of missing out. So we conform.

To keep up with a world that changes with each twist of the kaleidoscope is proving to be a hard-set task and a downright dangerous trend in every way imaginable. But we do it because everyone is doing it. A day will come when that answer just won’t be good enough.

The world might be a global village, but at what cost? My reason for writing this is not to raise alarms or to completely discourage the use of social media. I simply wish to draw our attention towards caution in a realm where there is so much trust.

Although we spend a significant amount of time online, we don’t seem to realise that our actions on our screens can have real-life consequences.

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