New Delhi/ Bengaluru — As of last week, the popular dating app Tinder was charging a 25-year-old Rs 520 per month for its premium service Gold, a 33-year-old woman was being charged Rs 1,099 and a 36-year-old man was being charged Rs 1,600 for the identical service.
The prices were slightly more -- to the tune of Rs 100-200 -- for users of Apple devices over Android devices. There was no difference between how much they were charging men and women of a certain age group. India is Tinder's biggest market in Asia, and at one point, annual user growth was at an astonishing 400%.
Tinder's surcharge for the unforgivable sin of being in your thirties, privacy experts say, is the most visible instance of how companies are harnessing personal user data to discriminate against users on the basis of completely arbitrary indicators, and one of clearest examples of why India urgently needs a data protection law to lay down what companies can, and cannot do, with the intensely personal user data they hoover up every day.
And Tinder is not the only company looking to use your data against you. Indian tech incubators are awash with start-ups looking to harness user data decide how much to charge you for everything from car and health insurance, to loans and credit.
This week, the BN Srikrishna Committee on Data Privacy is expected to publish its final recommendations, which should form the basis of a law on data privacy. Until such a law is passed, aggrieved Tinder users can try out India's antiquated legal system.
"Tinder is offering exactly the same services -- with no additional features or efforts being made by the company -- for different prices to different individuals. That is unreasonable," said Suresh Kumar an advocate with Legal Help Line India. He suggested that should a user wish to take this up, he or she can file a complaint with the Competition Commission Of India and challenge Tinder's 'unreasonable' pricing.
In August 2017, Tinder launched it's 'Gold' services despite protests in the US over the discriminatory pricing of 'Plus', and a Boycott Tinder movement in 2015-2016. Tinder did not reply to a list of questions on their pricing policy, we'll update this story if they do. The company has come under fire for following similar policies in other markets, including the US.
Bumble, a dating app available exclusively to users of Apple devices and founded by Whitney Wolf, a former co-founder of Tinder, doesn't discriminate based on age. We checked the prices of Bumble boost -- their paid service -- for a 21-year-old girl and a 34-year-old woman, and they were the same. Bumble charges Rs 619 per month irrespective of age, for Boost.
The problem of algorithmic discrimination is so pervasive that New York city passed a law in 2017 to ensure that the computer codes used to guide decision making city planners, government officers, and police, are free from bias. As per its proposers:
This bill would require the creation of a task force that provides recommendations on how information on agency automated decision systems may be shared with the public and how agencies may address instances where people are harmed by agency automated decision systems.
"Algorithms are often presumed to be objective, infallible, and unbiased," the American Civil Liberties Union noted in their brief on the act. "In fact, they are highly vulnerable to human bias. And when algorithms are flawed, they can have serious consequences."
In meantime, a HuffPost India review found, Tinder is only the tip of the data-berg.
The Devil is in the Data
Pune-based CarIQ for instance, offers a small dongle that plugs into your car, and provides you with driving analysis and feedback. It tells you how long you spent driving, how much fuel you used, and how that compares. It gives you a fuel economy score to tell you if you're doing a good job of driving in a way that saves petrol. It even gives you alerts for rash driving and impacts, so if another family member is driving the car, you can be sure that everythng is all right. Need to find the nearest petrol pump? It'll even navigate you to the nearest HP fuel pump.
Yet, CarIQ's killer-app appears to be its partnership with Bajaj Allianz, to help you find the "best and lowest quotes in the industry."
In an interview earlier this year, Sagar Apte, a founder at CarIQ, said "Our idea was that if you have a CarIQ, an insurance company will get a much better idea about the condition of the car, how carefully you're driving, they can offer updates based on your usage. And then they can also give you special offers - we only share aggregated data, not personal data, but if through machine analysis of your driving I can say that you are a good driver, then the company can offer you a better deal, with lower premiums."
Similarly, there are a number of companies that are working on this for health insurance, and at different AI and machine learning conferences in India, the analysis of medical data to predict and assign health scores, which can be used to offer discounts on premiums comes up a lot.
Of course, this also means - just like in the case of auto insurance - that people who don't match up to the assigned definition are effectively being penalised, having to pay higher premiums than those who fall into the "good" bucket.
"It may seem benign – 'Maybe they'll give me more targeted advertising', the real issue is we have very important decisions made about our lives – whether or not we have credit -- on the basis of that data," said Nick Srnichek, author of Platform Capitalism, and a lecturer on digital economies at the Digital Humanities department at King's College London in an interview last year. "If an algorithm determines that you shouldn't have access to credit, it is very hard to report against that."
In India, banks are building apps that read your text messages, and analyse social media posts to assess loan applications.
A bank official, who works with a private sector bank but did not want to be named, said that the prevalence of banking applications is driving a lot of data collection which can be used to supplement the information that a credit bureau would generate.
"When users download the app, they give us permission to look at messages and location. By just looking at transactional messages - none of your personal messages - we know about how big your bills are, and whether you're paying them on time, even if you're not using our bank to do this," the banker explained.
Bengaluru-based MoneyTap, which offers a line of credit, is still sticking to mostly traditional indicators, but adding factors like the device you're using, for example, to get an idea of your credit worthiness.
"The data is not sophisticated enough," said Bala Parthasarathy, CEO of MoneyTap, in a previous meeting. "Companies will look at your account data, read your transaction SMSes to understand your financial history. They might look at the apps on your phone to understand who you are, or ask for your social media logins to understand what kind of relationships you have, how strong a local circle you have, so they know you're not going to disappear."
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