By Girish Linganna
A country is always at war. Even in the backdrop of diplomatic relations, strengthened ties, adherence to political borders, there goes on a covert effort to create inroads that can be exploited to undermine the other. Once the realm of strictly intelligence agencies, the information age has thrust upon the globalised world means of readily exploiting and plotting the adversary without even physically crossing the boundaries.
Something so sinister often in conspiracy theories, but is it?
The Curious Case of Big Data
Big Data is a peculiar buzzword that everyone knows of but not about. This catch all term refers to various technical concepts centred on capturing any and all data generated by a user. What does it mean for an average Joe? Most businesses use some kind of service to capture data about the users frequenting their website or app. Google Analytics, one of the most popular tracking services, collects anonymised data at a larger level about the number of users, their sessions, approximate location, the kind of device and browser they use. This seems boilerplate until you see the exhaustive list of parameters collected by Google.
Google Analytics tracks events triggered by your interaction with the website. When you click an ad, even when you only look at an ad, when you remove an app, when you first open an app. Even when you clear or remove app data on your device or something as simple as scroll, Google knows and collects it. Apart from your interaction with the website, Google not only knows but also passes on to the website or app your age, city, device brand, device model, etc. Surely, Google ensures the data passed on is anonymised, but just because your information is anonymised when passed on will not necessarily preserve your privacy.
The Myth of Anonymity
In 2017, those who grew up with Pokémon, a popular game franchise, rejoiced as it released its mobile game, Pokémon Go, wherein players would use augmented reality to participate. The game was developed on top of Google Maps. The premise was to give users locations to go to where they could capture Pokémon. Sounds like a fun way to get the gamers to touch grass? The Chinese government disagrees. The Chinese government swiftly moved to ban the game’s release in the country citing consumer safety and threat to national security. What can a game do to a country’s national security?
Strava, an app used by fitness enthusiasts to track their runs, cycling, etc, released a map in November 2017. After each run, Strava generates a heat map which not only tracks what route the user took but also their effort with a colour. So, if you ran through a stretch, it would be shown as red while that peculiar uphill section would obviously be green. A worldwide map, of all users and their runs, would surely be a motivation for all. It would also be a threat to national security. And that is exactly what happened. In Syria, Afghanistan and Djibouti, soldiers at various US military bases kept in shape for the job by tracking their runs on the app. When the map was released, many wondered who was running in these war torn areas, in the middle of a desert. By overlaying anonymised data with a map, it exposed several American military bases. Zooming in on these also revealed the military base’s internal layout.
Dragon in the Backyard: India’s Challenge
If apps can be data hoarders of such scale, what about the actual device you use? With Chinese manufacturers undercutting the industry with cheap entrants, paired with customised operating systems, customised system apps, etc, one begs the question, what is the threat posed by these mobile phones to the users and the nation at large. In today’s globalised world, it will be impossible to cut off any country let alone a tech giant like China; however, we can pick and choose who we trust. In the mobile phone space, the only major competitor is the South Korean giant, Samsung.
Since 2020, Indian agencies have been investigating various Chinese apps that have been running scams in India. Many of these would lend money and use extortion to get much more than the agreed amount. These apps first took permissions to look at files, then downloaded entire user data onto a server. Many of the users stored private data including private images that they were threatened with. Because the app also collected their entire contact list, the scammers threatened to share all these images with their entire contact list.
Many now opine that India not only lags behind China by a decade but may slip towards digital colonisation. China has always set sights on the US as a competition and has repeatedly tried to weaponize its AI to leapfrog ahead of the US to achieve global domination. For India, the challenge is to sustainably open up its population to AI, for many lurk to pounce upon and eat up the nation from within.
Author is Defence and Aerospace Analyst.
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