“Data is the new oil” is a phrase first used in 2006 by Clive Robert Humpy, a British mathematician and data scientist. The conjecture then is logically reasoned today. Data has become the new most valuable resource, defeating oil.
When oil was first discovered, it became the most sought fuel to meet the mobile energy demands that would ‘run’ the world. What oil mining is for crude oil, data mining is for digital data. Data has become a commodity to capitalise on. In an ushering global digital economy, everything runs on data.
Data analysis, data science and data mining, among others, are the processes employed to deliver personalised services. The more an AI knows about us through machine learning and its programming, the better its algorithms target us with things of our cognitive liking in terms of digital content, advertising, inter alia. So much so that it eventually dictates our interests through psychological programming and takes away our agency.
Big tech giants including Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter bank on the data collected by them – by following our digital footprints, online activities, web surfing and so forth, both overtly and covertly. We are rarely given an option to ‘opt-out’ of this surveillance unless we specifically search for it in their settings and exclusively turn it off. This, too, leaves us with little space to breathe privacy as we have already given multiple permissions to these apps/sites when we first checkmarked their ‘terms and conditions’.
The data collected by these giants is not only our personal information but also our ‘choices’, things we search online, the information we seek about any topic, what we buy, how we interact with people, and so on. On these bases, we are bombarded with similar content to keep us hooked to our devices and scroll endlessly until doom. It might appear to be catering to our needs on the face of it, giving us personalised experiences and convenient entertainment, but it also has dangerous repercussions as it boxes us into echo chambers, gradually radicalising and polarising us through the same ideological content. Especially those who are media-illiterate are more prone to getting swayed.
The constant pushing of ads of things we search on the web promotes consumerism and unhealthy buying habits. The online cultivation of human personality affects personal human behaviours, relationships and decision-making. FOMO is one example.
When we use online media and their services for free, without paying for the commodity, we (i.e. our data) become the commodity.
India is yet to have a Personal Data Protection Act in place. This is when cyberspace — the fourth estate after air, water and land — is bourgeoning as more people are coming online. A huge chunk of our personal data is being collected through our online activities – our searches, GPS, emails, messages, likes, comments, impressions, cookies, etc. pose a serious threat to our privacy as they exploit our vulnerabilities. We are monitored and never at personal liberty in the digital world. If this data leaks, as happened with Air India and Domino’s recently, our privacy is more prone to further jeopardy.
Cybersecurity is weak and the challenges of cyber-attacks, identity theft, phishing, malware, deep fake, cloning, data militancy are just drops in an ocean of cybersecurity loopholes. Big data and metadata leakage are no less than massive oil spillage. If this data gets in the wrong hands and put to use for malicious reasons, it has the potential to shape or program how society ‘thinks’. The Cambridge Analytica scam is a classic example that will go down in history.
There must not be any discreet data collection and digital profiling for targeting ads or other reasons. We must have free will and freedom to make our own choice, instead of tech companies making our choices for us by subtle psychological brainwashing for capitalist gains.