Due diligence and transparency in the age of digital tracking

It’s true that digital tracking is pervasive; but comparing the tracking and use of people’s data without their consent (which is what Cambridge Analytica did) to tracking people’s reading behaviour with their consent (which is what a company like Jellybooks does) is not entirely fair. One is a serious breach of trust and violation of privacy for political uses and the other, a tool to develop ways in which we can market books better to sustain a precarious industry. The only way I see these two forms of tracking intersecting is if we assume that digital tracking of any sort is a risky venture, which, true, is not an entirely unreasonable apprehension to have. The Cambridge Analytica incident has especially forced us to revaluate digital tracking and its ethical implications.

What Cambridge Analytica did was manipulate Facebook users by way of an innocuous personality quiz. They dangled the carrot of money in front of people in exchange for access to their Facebook data. The participants knew their data was vulnerable, because they had agreed to the ‘Terms and Conditions’ of the test, but few must have wondered what harm would come from someone knowing what they had “liked” in the past year. Fewer would have realized that they were endangering not just their own privacy but their friends’ privacy as well, because by agreeing to the T&C’s of this test, they automatically enabled Cambridge Analytica to access their friends’ data, thanks to Facebook’s default terms that allowed their friends’ data to be used as well. None of the participants were made privy to the reason their data was being collected. Had they known the reasons, one hopes that most would have declined. Even Facebook – at least from what the reports say – did not know the nefarious ends to which user data was being collected. They thought it was only for academic purposes. Even if we assume Facebook was in on the charade, the people who participated in this quiz and by extension, millions of other people connected to them, definitely did not know that their data was being manipulated for sophisticated “psychological operations”, with the end goal to “microtarget” the British and American electorate to vote in a way that aligned with the political ideology of Cambridge Analytica’s funders.

Now, if we think of the ways in which digital tracking is done in publishing – and if we take the case of Jellybooks – they encode ebooks with software that tracks a reader’s engagement with that book. The software “records the reader interactions across a range of 3rd party apps such as iBooks and Adobe Digital Editions (ADE)”. The data is used to market books more efficiently. Software such as Jellybooks, OptiQly, and machine-learning programs that have the ability to predict bestsellers are useful because they are injecting some much-needed innovation into the publishing industry in a way that helps marketers position books better and readers to discover them easily. The problems occur when tests are conducted on users who are not entirely made aware of what they are getting into. In an interview with The Guardian, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie talks about the lack of “due diligence” on the part of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company, SCL. I think this due diligence is crucial. It is incumbent upon Jellybooks to be transparent to its ebook testers about its intentions and its end goal. It is also incumbent upon them to ensure that their software is encoded only into the ebook the reader has agreed to test for and not all the ebooks on their devices. If there is gray area, they should provide users information on ways to disable, delete or uninstall their software and ensure their reading behavior does not continue to be tracked by Jellybooks’s third-party affiliates. This sort of due diligence should extend even to organizations we don’t typically associate with participating in the publishing process, like Facebook. We’ve all “liked” posts about ostensibly generic and harmless things like Barack Obama auto-tune singing Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, shared information about our favourite films and participated in quizzes like “Which Pride and Prejudice character are you?” When we partake in social media activity, we think we are participating in the extended community of our friends. We don’t think our data is going to be harvested for ulterior motives. I am not sure whether the solution – although some have already done it – is to absolutely stop digital tracking or social media activity. My social media averse family would seem to think so.  But I, personally, think the solution is for organizations to promise complete and absolute transparency and “privacy settings” that, by default, are not checked to allow access to personal data. The solution is also, as Wylie puts it, for users to participate in any digital endeavour with “a healthy dose of skepticism”.  Beats hearing “I told you so” from your siblings.

The Churning Must Go On

As more news emerges about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I feel myself going through a range of emotions – confusion, disbelief, insecurity, paranoia, anger . . . and resignation. I am sure I am not alone in this flux. We’re all in it together – willingly or unwittingly. As a Facebook user (a decade now), I feel I’ve already shared so much with FB that there is no turning back. They have my number already. But then so do I. I think FB and I finally understand each other. This entire event actually drove me to look for some answers in the Indian mythology (we have answers for everything!).

Samudra Manthan is one of the more popular stories of the Bhagavata Purana, which finds expression in numerous South Asian miniatures and carvings across the ancient Indian kingdoms. It’s a fascinating story of the Devas (good guys) and the Asuras (bad guys) jointly churning the Ocean of Milk or Kshirsagara to obtain the Nectar of Immortality or Amrita. Although initially it is decided that the nectar would be shared equally between the two, but the Devas tricked the Asuras and consumed it all to attain immortality. However Amrita was not the only object that emerged from the Kshirsagara. The Bhagavata Purana describes numerous other living and inanimate beings which were birthed from the Ocean. This episode talks of alliances, treachery, deceit, intentions, desires and problem-management, among other things. But the chief image which is being highlighted is, of course, the manthan itself. The churning.

Mythology expert, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik says churning is not the same as tug-of-war. Both require a force and a counter-force, but whereas a tug-of-war implies the two sides implementing force at the same time (so that one side may win), churning requires one party to let go while the other applies force, and vice-versa (so that both are benefited). Change in any form has met with reactions and counter-reactions, but we, as a civilization, have never dwelled on them for too long. Kingdoms have emerged, and kingdoms have been devastated; people have settled and people have moved; temples and mosques and churches have been built and destroyed; there has been love, there has been hate, but nothing has been permanent. A constant churning has been in progress – sometimes in good faith, sometimes in ill-will; but much like the Devas and Asuras, we have been realizing the need for alliance and acceptance; the need to rise to the needs of the times; putting the land above everything else, at some point or another.

The Cambridge Analytica episode brought back the churning into focus for me. We’ve been part of the push and pull to unearth the digital delights of this world. We’ve actively contributed with our data to make our lives better. We’ve been tracked, and quite willingly too. I would like to point out that I feel I’ve been tracked not just the last few years on internet, but essentially since my birth. My kindergarten profiled me as a ‘sweet, but talkative child’, the neighbourhood grocery man knew my buying behaviour, the salesman at the clothing store quickly profiled my likes and dislikes about colours and patterns, my parents thought I was a rebel, my friends thought I was crazy cuckoo. Point being, we’ve been profiled forever. It’s nothing new. With the advancement in technology, this profiling has, in a way, made our lives easier. We have better cars, better houses, better clothes, better medicines etc. Someone is paying close attention to our likes and dislikes and making things just for us. So far, so good.

So while I happily consume the Nectar of Ocean, much like our gods did, I cannot ignore the other darker things that emerge from this or cry unfair. The data that benefited us, can also manipulate us. We need to be aware of that. Alternatively, we can disconnect from the internet and go back to our old ways. But really, is it possible to be disconnected in today’s world? We’re all caught in the spiral now. We can either roll with it or it’ll churn us, whether we like it or not.

What we need today is awareness, of our actions and the implications it can have; not only on us as an individual, but society as a whole. The greatest thing about our world today is the ease of communication. We’re on the cusp of being connected to every other individual on this earth. We’re not without power.  We have access to higher thoughts, ideologies, and intelligence to push back on manipulative intents. It’s all about the push and pull.

The churning must go on.

Anumeha Gokhale