Online shopping has become a very natural phenomena these days. It is perfectly normal to walk through an apparels shop and remember the clothes you like, try out your sizes and order them online later. Or tour a bookshop, gaze through the shelves, read the blurbs of the books you might like, take down their names and order them online later. Everything from an antique rotary dial clock to fresh (not sure about this) vegetables are sold online. And I am not entirely against that. But let me tell you something about how seamlessly your shopping history is used.
Try this, search a certain item you may want to buy, a flash drive for example, on shopping sites like Flipkart and Amazon for a few days. And afterwards pay careful attention to the advertisements that are displayed on the other websites that you browse. You will see a lot of these ads showing the same items you searched. Data…
If you use an android phone, go to the ‘Permissions’ section in your settings app. Scroll through the various permissions like ‘Camera’, ‘Microphone’, and ‘Location’. See how many apps you have installed have permissions to use those components of your device. Most of the popular apps have been criticized on this before and they have claimed to use these permissions for ‘enhancing user experience’. In truth, you will never know what data mining and number crunching happens in the massive server banks with sophisticated algorithms protected internationally by intellectual property rights. Still I am ready to give them the benefit of the doubt. Out of sheer decency and respect for privacy of others, most of the app developers may not be misusing this information. But what if one of their servers are hacked? (Like that has never happened before!). Some guy sitting in a remote corner of Russia may very well be able to turn the mic on your phone on and listen to that saucy gossip you are sharing with your friend.
Aim of this article is not to talk about massive data mining that is happening even as I type and you read this post, but how that data can be used for something utterly devastating.
Internet is non existent in North Korea save for high ranking government officials. And even if a common Joe manages to get his hands on it, his search results (in a generic sense, not just Google or Yahoo) for ‘North Korea’ and ‘America’ will be vastly different than what they will be for people like you and me in the free (lol) world.
In China, internet is available to everyone despite apps like Twitter being completely banned. Google had worked under heavy censorship in China until 2013 after which they stopped the services like Gmail and Google Search in China completely. When they were functional the search results for some of the politically sensitive issues were different from what they would be in the rest of the world.
My point here being, what comes up as your internet search results can be altered massively. And some data from you can be used to do it so much more effectively. An individual genuinely trying to learn about a religion may be shown results of extremists group of that religion to portray that religion as an oppressed community which is seeking redemption and vengeance from its long standing oppressors under the leadership of its new godman. During elections, search results favoring a particular candidate can tip the scale in today’s connected world. In case of communal tensions every single result of one community’s tyranny can be shown to agitate the other to ensure the eminent bloodshed. Multiple links of a certain food type from a brand might being carcinogenic can be shown to spread the notion of that brand producing hazardous products.
In earlier days, radio channels, posters, fliers and TV channels were propaganda (not just political) machines. To some extent they still are. But another very effective way is slipping right under our noses. Because for years we have seen it as a neutral medium of information… Internet…
Let me know if you have encountered anything like this or have imagined a possible future scenario in the comments below…
Inspiration for this post: Tailor