Privacy and Peddlers of Personal Data By Jitendra Kumar Sharma

 Privacy and Peddlers of Personal Data 

By Jitendra Kumar Sharma* 

 Facebook appears to have overawed governments and enthralled the people everywhere. Mark Zuckerberg’s confession during the Congress hearings, however, has dissipated the aura from the Zuckerberg-Facebook mystique. He admitted that his own personal data was “part of Facebook’s data abuse scandal”. Authorities are awakening and Facebook is no longer a ‘touch me not’. 

EU is the first to act against peddlers of personal data  because of its new privacy standards and greater taxation of online personal data peddlers like the Facebook and others. According to Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, public scrutiny of Facebook is “very much overdue” and “it’s shocking to me that they didn’t have to answer more of these questions earlier on” as European observers of information technology sector have been warning about the abuses by Facebook (and other portals) for past several years.


 Zuckerberg’s testimony  before the US Senate may be frank but hardly sufficient to restore public confidence. Illinois Senator Richard Durbin made the context clear when he questioned Zuckerberg whether he would be “comfortable sharing the name of his hotel and the people he had messaged that week”. Zuckerberg replied in the negative upon which the Senator glossed, “I think that may be what this is all about”, “Your right to privacy.” 

Questions and concern have been raised in various European parliaments from time to time. Stefano Quintarelli, an IT expert, also a member of the Italian Parliament, has been a continuous campaigner against Facebook’s abuse of its market position and of online personal data. He has proposed that users must retain control of their online profiles, which “should be readily transferable across portals”. That means, if dissatisfied with Facebook, users ought to be free to switch over to a competitor without losing  the following and  links that may remain on Facebook. 

Quintarelli argues that Cambridge Analytica’s acquiring and abusing Facebook was a consequence of Facebook’s irresponsible business model. Facebook now admits that Cambridge Analytica is  not the only outfit who has exploited personal profiles taken from Facebook. 

Observers believe that European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, effective from May 25, 2018 will serve as a bulwark against  malpractices indulged in by Facebook and other peddlers of personal data. It has taken years of “debate and discussion in preparing the Protection Regulation.” Under the GDPR, Quintarelli  thinks, “non-compliant organizations can face heavy fines, up to 4% of their revenues.” Personal Data Peddlers  are required to notify the authorities of the data leak as soon as the company gets to know about it. He also believes that “Effective competition is a powerful tool to increase and defend biodiversity in the digital space”and hopes that GDPR should prove effective as  it allows profile portability like  the mobile phone number from one operator to another. 

Yet human ingenuity is unlimited. Snoopers always have an upper hand and consumers or users, it seems. are always losers. Long winded legal procedures favor the criminals. As of today, personal privacy has been lost and shady operators are having the field’s day. 

WWW (World Wide Web) is more intricate than a spider’s web. Spiders’ webs serve as traps for their victims. Likewise, over two billion users are trapped in the WWW. The entrapped remain blissfully ignorant of their having been victimized. Moreover, they themselves walked into the snare and are happy to chirp from inside the net. 

Can we escape from the net? The answer is an emphatic ‘NO’. The system is overwhelming. It keeps a watch and acts like a jail warden. Once logged, we are under surveillance,our actions on the net are monitored. Modern communications equipment is treacherous. It leaves a digital trail and your digital self is a prisoner of governments, big corporations, security services. Edward Snowden revealed it all and is suffering isolation on behalf of all netizens. 

Even after Snowden’s telling us about the NSA surveillance which is greater than anyone can imagine, we remain willing victims. We assume that non-encrypted communications alone are unsafe and encrypted Skype’s being an ally of the NSA is an exception. It has, however,  become crystal clear that the encryption technologies also get routinely fractured or cracked.

 We can therefore say that no electronic communication managed by commercial companies is secure. Has then the NSA  really vitiated the US internet industry? Nearly all encrypted communications transmitted through the TOR network are with impunity snapped up by the NSA. You may feel queasy about being trapped in this web but you can do nothing about it. Make a telephone call, or send an email, and you will ineluctably leave a trail. Maybe you can make yourself less insecure but never fully safe.

Sarah Spiekermann, a  Vienna University Professor is another persistent critic of personal data peddlers. She is considered a global authority on theft and abuse of online identities by advertisers and political propagandists, public and private surveillance, other reprehensible malpractices. According to her, “more than a thousand companies are now involved in a digital information value chain that harvests data from any online activity and delivers targeted content to online or mobile users within roughly 36 seconds of their entry into the digital realm.” But Quintarellis and Spiekermanns appear hapless before Zuckerberg’s  lobbying power. PM Narendra Modi  and IT Minister Ravi Shankar are seen hankering after this commercial digital wizard. 

In any case, the EU has  come forward with its “new privacy standards and proposed greater taxation”but much more needs to be done  by governments in all countries for Internet  to become ethical, democratic and caring of net-users’ privacy and personal rights. 

*Author is Director Marshall McLuhan Centre 

Professor JITENDRA KUMAR SHARMA, M.A. [U of T], Ph.D. [University Toronto, Canada], Director Marshall McLuhan Centre, formerly of Toronto, Guelph, McGill, Jawaharlal Nehru Universities

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