13/12/2019 9:46 AM IST | Updated 13/12/2019 9:46 AM IST

The Decade Of Data: When Big Tech Snooping On Us Became The Norm

You’re being tracked in your home and in your office, by the government, your employers, and countless others. How did we get here?

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NEW DELHI—At the start of the decade, it felt like every tech founder was obligated to “make the world a better place”, as parodied here in HBO’s Silicon Valley. But that’s also because we were just coming out of the dot-com bubble, and the new companies coming up actually seemed to be different from what came before them.

A decade later, the sheen has worn off, the upstart startups are the globe-straddling behemoths, and Google’s code of conduct doesn’t even say “Don’t Be Evil” anymore. Instead, we users were reduced to data sources to be tracked, analysed, and exploited, as described by American scholar and author Shoshanna Zuboff in her bookAge of Surveillance Capitalism.

Facebook and Google want to show you the perfect ad, while Amazon tries to sell you what you want before you even know you want it. Uber looks at all kinds of factors, from the device you’re using, to the level of your battery, to decide how much it can charge.

And it’s not just the tech giants that are snooping inside your smartphone in order to know you better. Credit ratings firms inject code inside apps that play bhajans in order to snoop on your inbox and figure out what interest rates to charge.

Insurance companies are tracking your health information without informing you, while governments around the world are busy spying on their citizens using off-the-shelf software.

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Google launched in 1998, and Facebook launched in 2004. In the last ten years, it’s become nearly impossible to avoid either company completely, and as the oft-repeated maxim goes, if you’re not paying for something, you’re the product. These two technology giants, and countless others, have built billion dollar businesses on trying to grasp every scrap of information about us, in order to deliver perfectly personalised ads.

If the 90s were defined by breaking up tech monopolies, such as the Microsoft antitrust case, and the 2000s were spent recovering from the dot-com bubble, then the last decade has been the decade of data, and we’ve seen the fallout through cases like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which could have influenced the 2016 US elections, and widespread use of surveillance tech, such as facial recognition or the recent Pegasus scandal.

The scale of government surveillance through technology first became apparent in 2013, when American whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the American National Security Agency. Snowden reportedly copied almost 2 million NSA documents, and revealed the US’s global surveillance apparatus. The NSA had harvested millions of emails, tracked and mapped the location of cellphones, and piggybacked on the tools Internet advertisers used, in order to pinpoint targets for government hacking.

He also revealed that the NSA and CIA spied on people playing games like Second Life and World of Warcraft online, and leaked documents also showed that the NSA agents used the security apparatus to surveil their own love interests — something so widespread that the employees have a term for it, LOVEINT.

But it wasn’t just governments trying to spy on people either — everyone’s a snoop now. Social media, in particular, has become a great place to data-mine for people’s interests, as users who don’t understand the potential harms of their behaviour just give away sensitive and valuable information. If data is the new oil, most of us don’t realise that it’s flammable, or that it is worth billions.

However, businesses — and politicians — were able to figure this out, and weaponised social media platforms to spread their propaganda. In India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has, through an organisation known as the Association of Billion Minds, created a massive propaganda machine that creates groups to spread the word, sends out thousands of WhatsApp messages designed to polarise people by spreading hate, and influence the elections.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the US showed how the company harvested the information from million’s of peoples’ Facebook profiles in the guise of a quiz, and then used it for political advertising. A former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, revealed how the company was working for US Senator Ted Cruz, and used the data of 87 million users, of which 70.6 million were in the United States. Some users had given the app access to their news feeds and messages, and this was enough information for Cambridge Analytica to build psychographic profiles of people to determine what kind of political advertisements would be the most effective to persuade each person.

How effective is this, really? The truth is that we don’t actually know. But it wasn’t one company that acted covertly and stole data from millions of people — no, Cambridge Analytica was just one of thousands of companies whose developers were making use of Facebook’s features to openly guzzle user data and build products around it.

Here in India, states are building surveillance networks, while private players have driven the development of the Aadhaar ecosystem, leading to business-oriented exploitation of user data, often at the cost of privacy and security. And state governments distributed smartphones with the apps of BJP leaders pre-loaded — apps that allegedly track user data, and spread fake news.

If you were to describe these developments to someone in 2010, you’d be laughed at. In 2019, there’s an ever increasing number of confessional posts about leaving the advertising or tech industry. In the last decade, snooping has become so widespread, that companies are scooping up user data “just in case” and the government is trying to decide how to best monetise your personal information. Will this trend continue into the next decade? There are some hopeful trends, as more people start to use VPNs and ad-blockers, making it harder to track their information, and companies are also starting to see privacy as a selling point, but our obsession with data is unlikely to completely end so easily.