With Internet, nothing is private any more

If the theft of personal data and so-called "personality profiling" by some apps are subtle and tolerable, occasional intrusions into privacy are simply outrageous.

THE biggest news these days in the tech industry is the grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by a US Congress committee over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For three consecutive days, the iconic entrepreneur was bombarded by questions on how Facebook abused public trust and improperly shared user information with the London-based political consultancy.

Facebook has admitted the private information of almost 90 million users has been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg was asked by the committee to share the name of the hotel he was staying at and details of personal messages he had sent in the past week — information which Facebook routinely shares abouts its users. The Facebook chief refused, saying that his personal details should remain private.

As many in China watch Zuckerberg’s fall from grace, sympathetically or gleefully, a domestic tech company is being humbled for its similar lack of scruples.

China’s media regulator recently ordered Toutiao, an online media company worth up to US$60 billion in current market capitalization, to permanently remove its popular joke app neihan duanzi (loaded jokes) because of the vulgarity of its content.

Moreover, the authorities also demanded the suspension of Douyin, a live-streaming platform under Toutiao and its related comments section.

The crisis facing Toutiao isn’t exactly the same as the scandal engulfing Facebook. The immediate reason for Toutiao’s punishment has more to do with China’s relentless campaign to sweep smut from the Internet than with a breach of privacy.

All these years, the Chinese government has consistently carried out campaigns aimed at purifying the Internet of risque content that might corrupt morals and poison young minds.

For anyone unaware of what Toutiao is, this is a news portal that relies on powerful Big Data analysis to generate a customized feed list of content for intended audience.

It might sound like a good idea, to trust technology to handle the filtering work for us. But in effect, Toutiao’s services are often a source of great annoyance.

Following recommendations from friends, I downloaded Toutiao on my smartphone, only to regret doing this just days later. Shortly after I typed “fishing” in the search box (I became hooked on fishing lately) and clicked on the first few entries, my phone was flooded by a dozen “advertorials” on fishing equipment.

This bombardment did not cease even after I blocked messages from Toutiao. Full screens of ads about fishing gear still swamped my phone.

Dismayed, I deleted Toutiao.

Anyone with some knowledge of how these apps make money will tell you that the operators rank search results in the order of the amount paid by advertisers or in line with the practice known as PPC (pay-per-click).

Toutiao and its likes have a natural incentive to pore over users’ data for the slightest clues about their habits, interests and sometimes dirty little secrets.

During many a Metro ride, I have come across men who hold smartphones at angles that effectively block the prying gaze of passengers around. Their eyes nervously dart around to check if they were spied on in their surreptitious pleasures.

Trading privacy for convenience

For several times I stole glances at the visual delights they were absorbed in. The flesh color was a telltale sign of scantily-clad women supposedly pictured on the sly.

It is often observed that no one will be able to expunge the trace he or she leaves on the Internet. Hence prudence is advised, in case voyeuristic or other unhealthy impulses get exposed at the most inopportune moments.

The tricky thing is that when we begin to weigh the consequences of trading privacy for trivial convenience, it’ll be extremely hard for us to be weaned off our dependency on technology to help choose merchandise, gather news, or select steamy pictures.

Losing part of our privacy seems to be a price we unwittingly pay for living in a society characterized by worship of artificial intelligence, big data and all those fancy new things.

If the theft of personal data and so-called “personality profiling” by some apps are subtle and tolerable, occasional intrusions into privacy are simply outrageous.

Media reported recently that some companies in northern China forced employees to install apps on their phones that would reveal their whereabouts.

The goal, said some executives, is to better check on employees to prevent them from slacking off.

But many have complained about being fined for activities that took place during noon breaks, bathroom breaks, and other non-working hours. The way these companies spy on their staff, as if they were criminals in need of close surveillance, has drawn strong ctiricism.

During his testimony on Capitol Hill, Zuckerberg apologized for a major breach of trust, outlining steps to protect user data.

Separately, Zhang Yiming, CEO of Toutiao, also publicly apologized and promised the company would adhere to positive values in its future operation.

Making these tech gurus honor their oral commitments will be the first step toward guarding our privacy.

Next, and more importantly, we should ask ourselves: To what degree should we continue to allow our lives to be framed, limited, disturbed, manipulated and exploited by technology?

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