Big Data and a small pack of diapers!

Art Courtesy: Pradeep Vijayan

Over the past few years, we Indians have seen technology become an integral part of their lives. Everything from buying the latest pair of shoes to booking an entire tour package can be done with just a few clicks. With convenience driving consumer behaviour in India, it is quite possible that we forget about the digital footprint that we leave behind.

The average Indian who has bought anything from an ecommerce website ever, might think that “What can the company possibly do with my data?”, after all it’s just a single purchase of some random item amongst the millions of things they sell. This is where we need to understand the basics of data collection and how Big Data can be a potential weapon in the wrong hands.

That seemingly harmless diaper

So for arguments’ sake, let’s say that you just ordered a pack of diapers from your favourite ecommerce website. Here is a list of things that the AI-driven algorithm running on the site can learn about you with varying levels of certainty:

  • You have a newborn in your home 
  • The age of the newborn, depending on the size of the diapers
  • There is a lactating mother in the family
  • A rough idea of your income-level (depending on the premiumness of the brand, and your subsequent purchases, the algorithm will predict this with greater certainty)

Now, a single harmless purchase has given the algorithm 4 different data points or more to work on. Based on these data points, it can push anything ranging from maternity clothing to cribs to baby products, the next time you login to your account. That’s not all, when this data is collected and analysed for millions of users, companies can see the overarching pattern and tailor their businesses accordingly. There are websites that have AI algorithms learned enough to understand the weather in your area and recommend products accordingly.

But, all this is just to sell some products, right? Yes and No! Sites use this only to boost their sales and profits, but when you apply the same set of rules to social media platforms, it becomes easy to figure out your political inclinations, your habits, and maybe even your way of life with a very high degree of certainty. This kind of detailed data in the wrong hands can be misused to cause long-term damage to existing democratic institutions and maybe even cause national security issues.

Your data should be yours. Period.

With the increasing influence of technology in our lives, the question isn’t ‘What can they do with my data?’, the more pertinent question is “What can’t they do with my data?’. As consumers and citizens of India, we need to be aware of the various social media platforms we use in our life and understand how seriously they take user privacy. In a span of less than 2 years TikTok has become one of the most widely used video apps in India. Owned by the Chinese tech giant ByteDance, TikTok has more than 120 million active Indian users. 

Multiple reports from leading media houses have highlighted how the app is ‘always tracking its users with a combination of audio and browser tracking methods. Industry leaders have gone on to the extent of branding the app as a spyware, and yet it continues to be one of the most popular apps in India.

“The data you generate is only yours”, and till the day world governments don’t understand this basic premise, the responsibility is always on us citizens to ensure that we only use apps, browsers, and other technological solutions that respect us as human beings and not just fodder for some AI algorithm.

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