A dimly lit dorm room housed a young teenager, tucked under the weight of his blanket, browsing all over the internet. The boy took a quick glance around his surroundings. He saw no one. All was quiet.
He went back under the blanket.
The boy opened up a virtual private network (VPN), allowing him to bypass the school’s firewall and relive his hooded digital self, the state he was stripped of when he joined the residence.
He occasionally giggled, moved around. The sound of shuffling rivaled the birds chirping outside.
He felt empowered. Nobody could stop him. He could do whatever he wanted to.
Except, fast-forward a couple years, the same boy has grown. He now smells more. His voice is deeper. His laugh remains.
He uses the same methods. He still feels powerful. He turns on his gaming console, surprised to see a message showing that it would be unable to connect to the network for a week. Puzzled, he finds out that “names, addresses and other personal data of about 77 million people with accounts on [Sony’s] PlayStation Network (PSN) have been stolen.”
Tension starts to accumulate in the boy. He starts looking around him. His bed unravels, windows open, the computer screen on.
As he reads the news, a new headline emerges: “Aadhaar: Are a billion identities at risk on India’s biometric database?” He glances at his wallet. He looks at his Aadhaar card, remembering that he had to give his iris scan and fingerprints for its registration. Now, it was all out there, on the web.
Anyone can access it. In fact, hackers are now selling identities, packaged with biometric data, for as cheap as 500 rupees. Anyone can know all your biological details, address, gender, and occupation, and you would have no idea.
You are at the mercy of the buyer.
The boy looks back into his past, the times he got away with doing whatever he wanted to on the internet. Except, now the internet is crowding him.
Gone are the days when he believed that Shailender Bhandari, head of ICT, is his biggest hitch to internet privacy. His life is converted and uploaded as a string of ones and zeros; a string stashed in an infinite digital basket, for anyone to take.
For anyone to cut.
The boy becomes paranoid. He’s alone. He’s got nobody with him.
Thus, he tries to search the web to find comfort.
Instead, he comes across another atrocity, the biggest security breach in the past decade in the heart of all tech corporations, the United States.
He finds out that back in 2013, Edward Snowden, a Central Intelligence Agency employee, leaked classified files from the National Security Agency (NSA), exposing to the world how the NSA has been collecting personal data, through the logging of “metadata,” or information about pieces of data, from millions of people.
Even those who aren’t American.
The NSA works in collaboration with conglomerates like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook to gather this data. They claim that, through their collection, they are preventing the next terrorist attack: “In order to find the needle in the haystack, they argue, they need access to the whole haystack.”
The boy thinks about his friends and seniors that graduated and migrated to America: this means the American government can know everything about him, his occupation, his family, his address, and even the places he has recently visited.
The boy also came across China.
Under its new president, Xi Jinping, China has become more of a totalitarian state than ever before. To him, the rise of big data and social media just meant one thing: a more efficient mass-surveillance system.
Throughout the country, thousands of checkpoints — in malls, train stations, and mosques — have been stationed in which a person has to present his or her face and national identification card: a piece of information with which the government can determine the person’s history; capturing him or her, on the grounds of future misconduct, if he or she has a bad history.
Additionally, “Police officers visit local homes regularly to collect further data on things like how many people live in the household, what their relationships with their neighbors are like, how many times people pray daily, whether they have traveled abroad, and what books they have.”
A religious minority group, known as the Uighurs, is forced to download “government-designed tracking apps on their smartphones.”
Furthermore, little did the boy realize that, as he was doing the quick Google search, the company had already been recording his location and momentary search interest, which would then be added to its advertisement profile of him.
The boy, gaining more awareness of the issue, slumps in anger: Am I really just mere lines of code, a source of profit for billionaire college dropouts? For governments to spy on and manipulate? Do I have any rights?
However, he soon finds out that Google does offer a way for one to retrieve all the data the company has been collected off of him or her. The bad news is that the “permanently deleted” button is just a hoax.
Google stores everything about you: location, search history, YouTube history, emails, spam, Google Drive trash, you name it.
Silicon Valley is dominating the world, with the support of one of the most powerful governments. In a time when all seems dull and scary, the boy finds a silver lining. He finds people that are fighting.
Fighting hard for the basic rights that are ripped off of them.
One such example would be Alastair Mactaggart, a realtor who became one of the most influential data privacy activists in the world.
Mactaggart was having dinner with a friend from Google; jokingly, he asked if he should be worried about the company. Un-jokingly, the engineer said people “would flip” if they knew what Google was mining off of them.
After reading up on more cases of political disturbance due to big data mining, Mactaggart decided it was enough: he was going to take on Silicon Valley.
After countless negotiations and legal battles with Google and Facebook, Mactaggart was able to put his bill, the California Consumer Privacy Act, in the United States Senate. The bill has essentially made a small stride in data privacy: it only forces companies to disclose the type of data, not any more specific details.
When it came to passing the bill in Senate, “not a single lawmaker … voted against the compromise.”
The bill establishes a legal baseline for which every person can receive their fundamental digital rights. In other words, there has been an advancement in the battle.
Additionally, one can protect their data by coming up with “passphrases” instead of passwords: this is done by taking a meaningless sentence you can remember and altering it slightly. Furthermore, to escape data personalization and its economic one-sidedness, one can also switch to DuckDuckGo, “the search engine that doesn’t track you.”
The boy finds comfort in people like Mactaggart. He wants to be like him, fighting for his own life.
That’s when it strikes him: We may be living in a time of relative peace, but that is just a fabrication of reality.
Governments have shifted their wars from the physical to the digital domain. They are using the internet as a means of exerting more influence over us, the general people.
We are deceived by these companies claiming to “connect” us from all the spheres of the globe.
There are only two courses of action: either I do something about it or remain in blissful ignorance.
It’s time I take back the ownership of myself, starting with small steps of data protection.
It’s time to understand what it means to click that “tick” box on social media terms and conditions.
It’s time for the people to be independent again.
The boy’s face becomes sterner. His back straightens. His eyes set forward with a fierce determination.
The room dims. The boy creeps back under his blanket. Eyes shut.
Edited by Veer Arya