2018: When the internet cost people their privacy and even their lives 

A round-up of this year's some of the biggest data breaches and misinformation sources that questioned an individual's privacy and even at times threatened human life. 

Published: 31st December 2018 02:20 PM  |   Last Updated: 06th January 2019 03:27 PM   |  A+A-

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Online Desk

The year 2018 will be remembered as a year when data breaches, fake news and lynchings dominated the internet. Cambridge Analytica made Facebook and its users realise the importance of a 'like'. Aadhaar gave Indians the scare of massive surveillance and understand the importance of privacy. WhatsApp lynchings gave goosebumps to everyone while Google's unauthorised tracking gave us a fear of being watched continuously.

Let us take a look at this year's biggest data breaches that rocked the world.

WATCH | Internet 2018: News and privacy without 'Aadhaar'

Google tracks you even with your location history off

This might sound shocking but it’s true. Google can track your location even when you have turned your location history off, according to an Associated Press report said.

Location history gives user right to stay private and not let Google know your whereabouts.  However, researchers from the UC Berkley University in August 2018 found out that Google prompted a woman to rate a trip to Kohl’s even when she had turned off her location history.

When you visit you see a list of tabs from where you can monitor what is being tracked by Google. When you click on the first tab a list of Google apps you use are shown with an option to turn it on off.

This should stop Google from any further tracking but here’s what happens.  Google can still know where are you are, may not be exactly. For details please read Google tracks your movements, like it or not.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently faced an inquiry by the House Judiciary Committee for tracking the location of users. Pichai faced ire of the US Senate for declining to testify about foreign governments’ manipulation of online services to sway US elections earlier. Pichai was even asked why the US President’s photo appeared when anyone googled 'idiot'.

In November 2017, news website Quartz had published a report which said it can track your location even without a sim card. An Android device can make an emergency call even without a sim card by accessing nearest cell phone tower’s network. Google tracks the places of these towers to locate your device. After the report, Google said it has stopped the practice and denied storing of any data.

Facebook takes note of digital privacy

2018 was one of the worst years for Facebook. On March 17, The New York Times and The Guardian simultaneously published articles on data mining and political consulting firm by Cambridge Analytica (CA). The company paid to know Facebook users’ activities and targeted them with content favourable to a political party/candidate (Turmp in this case). Whistleblower Christopher Wylie exposed how he built media tycoon Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool by using the data.

Facebook’s internal investigation revealed that in 2014 Alexander Kogan designed an app named ‘thisisyourdigitallife’. About 2,70,000 people downloaded the app and gave away their data. This data included users’ likes, dislikes, tracking down comments, the content they watched and even the duration of  time the content was watched. Thus defining the psychology of anyone who was using the app. Kogan sold this info to Cambridge Analytica who then used it to make a psychographic profile of the users. But the problem didn’t end here. Back then, Facebook allowed the developers to access information about not just the users but also their friends. Following the investigation, it was found that a total of 87 million Facebook users’ data was leaked and CA had access to this data for over two years until the 2016 US presidential elections.

A file photo of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Capitol Hill in Washington, about the use of Facebook data to target American voters in the 2016 election. (Photo | AP)

The data even raised the eyebrows of US Congress as it put a dent on US elections and surfaced the question on online campaigning. As to what extent can one influence the voters. Mark Zuckerberg kept mum for 5 days after the scandal and then wrote a Facebook post and even gave an interview to CNN where he apologised for the event. Later, he was summoned by the US Congress and was questioned for hours. The US lawmakers grilled Zuckerberg on users' right to privacy and even asked whether or not he would make his private information public.

But this wasn’t the only time when Facebook was in news. In November, world’s largest social networking site Facebook took down 1.5 billion fake accounts which were used for distribution of violence, adult nudity, child pornography, sexual exploitations and terror propaganda. 

The scandals further marred the reputation of Facebook as it was already under attack for confirmed reports of the usage of the platform by Russia to spread misinformation. Meanwhile, there have been various reports how the automated Facebook feeds if passively consumed could actually make you feel bad about yourself.

Print Aadhaar at home

The database of Aadhaar, one of the crucial document for an Indian, was hacked not once but on several occasions this year. Yes, you heard it right.

The Tribune’s investigation in January revealed that payment of mere Rs 500 was enough to get Aadhaar number of any person in India.

According to the report, after a payment is done, a person can get a login Id and password bypassing all the security firewalls, passwords and data encryption. And all this happened within 10 minutes.

This went even further as with an additional payment of Rs 300 you can actually get the software to open your own ‘Aadhaar printing press’. As per the UIDAI data, by October, about 90 per cent of the citizens have registered for Aadhaar. This means more than 500 million people’s biometric data was leaked.

If this wasn’t enough, in July Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI) chairman made his Aadhaar number public on Twitter and challenged to give any of his details. What followed this was a hacker named Elliot Alderson disclosing the TRAI chief’s private details layer by layer.

A similar investigation was conducted by the Huffington Post in September which again revealed that the practice hasn’t stopped and on the contrary, it has gone one step further. Now one can even generate a new Aadhaar. The detailed investigation said that a software patch or a series of computer codes was made available for Rs 2,500 to anyone. The software patch could easily bypass any security and generate a new Aadhaar number. And this time it was even available on WhatsApp.

The report analysed the government’s decision to let private players enroll Aadhaar users as the main reason for this world’s largest data breach.

The Tribunes investigation was upheld by none other than Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower, who was exiled for exposing the US government’s role in putting almost every US citizen under surveillance. He even went on to say that the framework of mass surveillance today would look a lot like Aadhaar.

In October, in all Android phones automatically a UIDAI contact was automatically added. This could just be the beginning as per Snowden.  

Beware of fake news on WhatsApp

Can you imagine a world where a mere suspicion is enough to kill or be killed? One video, made in Pakistan, circulated in India took lives of more than 43 people this year. Every month there were reports from various parts of the country of mob-lynchings wherein a message — child lifters at large — was being circulated widely on WhatsApp.

The video shown above is a purposefully shot one in Pakistan as an attempt to create awareness about child abduction. As you can see in the video the kidnapper brings back the child and holds a placard which says “it takes only a moment to kidnap a child from the streets of Karachi.” But an edited version of the video where the first fice seconds and last 15 seconds of the video were removed and the rest was circulated.

As a result:

Two men who had stopped to ask directions in Assam when they were beaten to death by a large mob.

Five men in Maharashtra were lynched on the suspicion of being child-lifters. All of them were nomadic tribals and were seen talking to a girl in a market.

A mentally retarded woman was tied to a pole and tortured by a village mob in Assam.

In Tripura, a man who was spreading awareness against the rumour-mongering was himself lynched by a mob on suspicion of being a child-lifter.

A 40-year-old man who arrived in the Medrakla village in Chhattisgarh was lynched on suspicion as he was not able to identify himself or from where he belonged.

Hyderabad techie Mohammed Azam was visiting a small village in Karnataka along with two of his friends. Within five hours of arriving in the village, all of them were termed as child lifters and beaten by bamboo sticks to death. While the mob kept asking them how many children have they kidnapped?

It took 29 lives before the government and WhatsApp took note of such a serious issuer. The government then told WhatsApp to come up with regulations to counter the spread of fake news over its platform. In return, WhatsApp issued a full-page warning in newspapers and on social media just to flag its "concerns". The government also issued a warning to WhatsApp after which it brought in a new feature wherein a message can now be identified as a 'forwarded' against the original one.

It is interesting to know how social media and technology has changed our lives. But the problem here is no the technology but the hands that are using it and the companies which are providing them. If Facebook can monitor the accounts circulating fake news then why can’t WhatsApp? Within the current ecosystem, it is very difficult to say how much of our data is secure but one good thing is that our intellect hasn’t completely been overtaken by technology.


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    Nice & informative. Keep it up Shantanu
    2 years ago reply
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