A few months ago, the Information and Broadcasting ministry released a tender inviting companies to bid for a project to make a “social-media analytical tool” to create digital profiles of citizens to measure their response to official policies and according to me, then use the tools at their disposal to target individuals and promote positive views about the government and inculcate “nationalism”.
Now, all this talk of “digital profiles” and “social media analytics” might sound familiar to you. That’s because the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal was exactly this, where the company used user’s online data to create profiles and to target them to influence their opinions.
Before drawing any conclusions, let us first understand what this plan actually entails.
As was made clear in the Cambridge Analytica affair, our online user data i.e. likes, shares, comments, posts, tweets, re-tweets, emails are all highly indicative of our personality.
They can be used by experts to make a profile of us, like a digital marksheet, detailing our personality traits, political leanings etc. This data can also be used to predict how we would react to certain information or a situation.
This is known as data analysis of Big data. A form of this is used by companies like Facebook and Google to target us with ads. Though one thing to note is that here, we give our data willingly, and Facebook is answerable to a lot of parties.
Now, somebody who has the access to this data and the means to make use of it has quite a bit of power over us.
According to the whistleblower who exposed Cambridge Analytic, information on a mere 70 facebook likes of yours can help them understand you better than your best friend.
The situation in India
The tender released by the government is 66 pages long. However, there are a few pertinent requirements that really stand out:
1. The government requires the “analytical tool” to “perform like [a] search engine” and “provide reports on sentiment, reach, details related to trending about topics and hashtags as instructed by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting“.
2. They also invited ideas on “how could public perception be molded in a positive manner for the country” and “how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses“. The analytical tool should also be able to make certain topics trend on social media.
3. They want the tool to identify what the government feels is “fake news“, predict “headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe” and gauge “what would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news“.
4. The tool will be able to make a “conversation archive” of users from their social media. It should be able to “see the historic conversation of each user in a reverse chronological manner along with the ability to merge conversations across channels.”
So basically, the government wants a tool that can make topics trend on social media, can mold public perception, behave like a search engine and single out people, track their conversations on multiple platforms through time, and target what the government feels is fake news.
This comes at the heel of the I&B ministry’s proposal to suspend journalists who they felt were perpetuating fake news.
This proposal goes against the larger global trends of providing citizens more rights to privacy. The European Union recently passed the GDPR into law which aims to give control to citizens and residents over their personal data. It includes higher penalties for corporations which violate the rules.
This proposal even goes against the Supreme Court ruling declaring privacy as a fundamental right. One of the reasons is that there are no data protection laws in India. Therefore that connect between data and privacy has not been established till now.
The debate about data privacy is ongoing worldwide. A consensus is yet to emerge on what right governments and corporations have on the data that they have access to.
The civilized world that India boasts to be a part of is moving towards a more data secure future, but this move feels to go in the opposite direction, that of China, where the government awards you points for good behavior, like a pet owner does to a dog.
Image Source: Google Images
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