The age of data

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"If you like this post, perhaps you will like this post"

We live in an era of data. We use technology every day - To make phone calls, to navigate, to check our email, spend time on social media, read the news or get that weird query answered. The interesting aspect though is that almost all of these services are free. And we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

How do these companies make money? We know that companies such as Google and Facebook are primarily ad-driven. I wonder how many people would use Facebook if it was a paid platform. Ads have been driving these businesses for a very long time. But ever since machine learning has taken the world by storm, companies have been steadily working towards the collection of data. If you want to know someone's likes or dislikes, you need to know more about them. A person who likes Harry Potter is likely to enjoy Lord of the Rings.

But just knowing what someone likes isn't adequate. People are complicated, and their preferences are not easy to predict accurately. Various other aspects such as age, place of origin, gender among others play a role. The same person may enjoy different types of music based on his mood which further complicates predictions. Companies that want to display ads that are likely to result in successful conversion should, therefore, know how to target more accurately. Companies, thus, collect various signals such as location, devices used, amount of time spent performing activities apart from requesting your personal information such as date of birth through the creation of an account.

Companies create profiles using these signals. They collect more data to observe browsing behaviour and identify patterns. They also check what profiles are similar. As people of similar profiles are likely to have similar preferences, activities of a person are likely to be enjoyed by a person of an analogous 'profile'.

Companies are using this to provide extremely personalised services. A software programmer is likely to search for the data structure rather than the wooded organism when looking for a tree. If you look at our activities, we also perform actions predictably when you look at the context. And Google handles this remarkably well. Google reads my hotel reservations from Gmail, adds the dates to my calendar and updates the map. It presents this message on the map and assists me in finding bus-stops near to the hotel even though I am not near the hotel at the time of searching. Places of interest continue to appear while irrelevant information fades out without me informing that a location was not relevant to me.

All of these make our lives very easy. We have become very dependent on these fantastic experiences. I have toured multiple countries by relying entirely on Google alone.

But everything comes at a price. It is possible for companies to feed you information that it believes to be relevant for you. And this makes us vulnerable to manipulation. I have a Muslim friend on Facebook who keeps posting articles on *Muslim Persecution* or *Islamic Superiority* but not reports where Muslims are the perpetrators of violence. It could be because of one of two reasons. Either he sees articles where Muslims are the perpetrators but chooses not to share them, or Facebook has determined that he *likes* posts of a particular kind and shows him more of those. Unfortunately, it reinforces his idea that Muslims are persecuted. The same goes for rapes or other forms of violence. India has an incredibly low number of per capita rapes (The USA is much more unsafe), and yet it has a relatively poor reputation. These recommendation systems create a loop that keeps getting strengthened as you engage more with them.

Recommendation systems are being used everywhere - From news to movies through shopping suggestions and the posts that you like to read. It ends up having a profound impact on your mindset. These effects are not a result of a wilful concerted effort by the companies but are just byproducts of automatic systems. Imagine the problems when companies intentionally try to or allow their services to manipulate the populace. The alleged meddling of the U.S. elections and the censoring of news in the Middle East are prime examples where companies can have a profound impact on the future of nations.

I found it interesting that several *intellectuals* had a problem with the government snooping on them according to a recent article. And yet, the very same people willfully share their entire browsing behaviour, locations and other data with foreign private companies. I recently erased my complete history on Google and prevented all forms of tracking as well. While I don't have any significant secrets to talk about, I believe that 'prevention is better than cure'.

At the conclusion, I would like to point out that one should analyse if one is being manipulated (intentionally or unintentionally) via concerted or automatic means prior to arriving at conclusions based on what one reads online.

--
If you are serious about privacy, you should consider using Tails [https://tails.boum.org]. Tails is an operating system that sends its traffic through Tor.

You can also start looking at DuckDuckGo [http://duckduckgo.com] as your search engine alternative.

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