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From the moment an individual  wakes up in the morning to the time s/he sets the alarm for the following day – and even while sleeping, one’s life is now being captured in a continuous loop of digital surveillance via tech gadgets. Individual actions, interactions, preferences, and nearly every aspect of the  digital life  is being monitored and converted into data points. This surveillance extends to personal data from sources such as search history, social media platforms, web page views – virtually every aspect of digital presence.

Given the pace of technological advancements, it seems that data is now being processed much faster than it is being produced. In fact, some tech companies are so data hungry that they are using synthetic data generated using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to fill in the gap and mimic real-world patterns. This tech hunger is driven by several factors, amongst which targeted advertisements and refining AI models stand out prominently.

Targeted advertisements enable tech companies to increase their revenues. Google’s revenue from advertisements alone was USD 237.8 billion for 2023 – a significant share in its overall revenue of USD 305.6 billion. Likewise, Meta reached its highest figure vis-a-vis revenue generation at USD 134.9 billion, with 98.5 percent revenue generation from its social media platforms via advertising. These figures suggest reliance of these tech giants on ‘surveillance capitalism’ for their business models – even at the expense of individual privacy. Unfortunately, the objective of targeted advertisement is not monetary benefits, but also extends to manipulating public opinion and driving vested political agendas.

Another trend that has picked up pace is the race to lead AI. AI models rely on large quantities of data to improve their capabilities. Ever since 2020, training data used in AI models has increased exponentially. Online content spanning articles, documents, posts, videos, podcasts, etc., have become the backbone of a booming AI industry. The more data it can extract from online sources, the better positioned industry leaders are in refining their AI models.

These trends should make internet users seriously contemplate the repercussions of  their online presence and personal data becoming raw material for marketing and AI training. There is considerable asymmetry in how well informed these tech platforms are regarding user data and how little awareness users have regarding these companies’ underlying privacy/data use policies. This asymmetry empowers digital platforms to predict individual actions and influence them accordingly. This is particularly relevant for social media platforms, where personal data is shared voluntarily, and digital footprints are created. The scope of this phenomenon goes beyond merely targeted marketing. The more personal the data, the more accurate are the profiles maintained by tech companies – from what one likes to even where one might be at certain times during the day. Ultimately, there is a looming threat of individuals being reduced to mere data points, manipulated to serve various agendas/interests, which could result in severe long-term harm, eroding personal freedoms and leading to widespread exploitation and control.

To be fair, tech gadgets and such data mining are not going away anytime soon. It is up to users to be more responsible in order to mitigate existing asymmetries. One of the main things we can do in this regard is to understand the value of personal data – no matter of whom and from where. Tech companies have been propagating this narrative that using data is ‘necessary’ and somewhat inevitable – to dilute privacy concerns. However, if personal data was not so important in the first place, companies would not be pushing so hard to acquire it. Hence, it is imperative to think carefully before posting personal data online, particularly personal images and sensitive information. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but personal images divulge secrets and data far beyond what one might imagine. Hence, they should be posted online after due consideration – the less, the better. Another important step is to log out of unnecessary apps that continue running in the background on various tech gadgets. Internet netizens should also be cautious with emails as they can contain embedded trackers. It is better to avoid opening suspicious emails and links. In fact, one should always maintain separate emails for different purposes, such as using one email for personal communication, another for work-related matters, and a third for online shopping, banking or subscriptions. This helps in managing privacy and security more effectively. Additionally, using separate browsers and search engines; setting complex passwords; enabling automatic updates; using two-factor authentication; avoiding third-party apps; installing reliable firewall protection; reviewing app permissions for minimal access and frequently checking privacy policies is also crucial for mitigating personal cybersecurity risks. The above measures might appear rather simple, but they can help mitigate some of the associated risks with data mining. Lastly, there is a pressing need for greater awareness regarding existing data security and privacy laws, as well as individual rights and responsibilities in safeguarding personal digital information.

As science fiction is seen transforming into reality via smartphones and technologies such as AI, it is imperative to take proactive actions in light of potential risks. While tech gadgets/social media platforms/apps are a source of entertainment and comfort, they can become a risk. It is up to users  to responsibly manage their interaction with technology.

Shaza Arif is a Research Associate at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. The article was first published in The News International. She can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com.

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