Data gone rogue: An excerpt from “Balance - Responsible Business for the Digital Age”

25 March 2019

“The promise of a technology driven world may not be all goodness ... but something far darker and disturbing,” Namrata Rana and Utkarsh Majmudar write in their book Balance - Responsible Business for the Digital Age. Rana is the India Ambassador of University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, and Majmudar writes about companies’ business responsibilities. Both are visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Management in Udaipur. The authors contend that the immense challenges that all nations face presently—waste, water, energy, biodiversity, inequality and data—have led to the emergence of “a consciousness about the earth.” Alongside, the tremendous technological developments of the past decade have also helped evolve “strategies ... that can help mitigate our misuse of the planet.” They write that, in such a scenario, “responsibility and balance can’t just be a few additional words that are tossed into the discussion.”

In the following excerpt, the authors discuss how every sector of the world economy “is seeing the benefit of capturing data and using it for increasing sales.” As data personalisation becomes central to business models across industries—education, healthcare, insurance, banking, among others—ordinary people can be “easily targeted, identified and therefore manipulated.” As India grapples with regulatory issues around privacy, data-hosting and a concomitant lack of awareness, Rana and Majmudar write,“we seem to be sitting on a time bomb.”

Ad tech conceals a dirty secret. It is increasingly personal and relies on tracking people. Re-targeting has been used by marketers to follow customers around. Small bits of code that were downloaded onto your computers and mobile phones enable companies to track customers, no matter which website they visit. This small code constantly aggregates data and serves up appropriate content, campaigns and banners to entice customers into buying whatever they are selling. If you visited a clothing website or clicked on a banner and were surprised that no matter where you go you get information about the same apparel company, you are being tracked. A constant reminder to finalise the purchase.

However, ad tech is also not the only culprit. Most online users have possibly never read the terms-of-use of any of the social platforms, and are entirely unaware of how much companies know about them and how far information about them has already travelled. People are not really paying attention to their privacy. A massive legal document appears on the screen and customers just click “accept” by default because the legal language is beyond their comprehension. People who want to know that the boundaries are not being crossed do not even know what the boundaries are.

On the bright side, our digital identity can help solve a host of issues around health, travel, governance and much more. Personalised medicine and an improved quality of care can become possible with seamless transfer of data between people, doctors and medical establishments. Governments can ease the general bureaucratic tangles and delays around public services, improve tax collection and improve transparency and accountability for public spends. But in the hands of the wrong people data can create chaos. To some extent the recent scandals have helped turn a spotlight on what lax laws and unbridled access to data can actually do.

Namrata Rana is the Director-Strategy and Brand at Futurescape.

Utkarsh Majmudar is a visiting faculty at the Indian Institute of Management-Udaipur.

Keywords: Data protection data security surveillance Hacking Communications and Information Technology technology business artificial intelligence digital security
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