Hafta letters: Privacy on Facebook and WhatsApp, gurus who do good, love and compromise

NL subscribers get back with bouquets and brickbats!

ByNL Team
Hafta letters: Privacy on Facebook and WhatsApp, gurus who do good, love and compromise
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Hi,

With respect to parallels and comparisons drawn between what happened in the US Capitol Hill to India, and asking what if something like that happens in India. Well, something like that has already happened in India multiple times. Let me just state some numbers, people will figure it out: 1992, 2002, early 2020, etc. In all these examples, it was some of these people with links to the ruling class inciting mass violence in the name of ideology. Only difference though between India and the US is that here, both the perpetrators and inciters walked scot-free in all of these cases and now hold power at different levels, whereas in the US, there still seems to be some level of accountability.

Also on the US right-wing media narrative that Antifa infiltrated the siege and caused all the damage, well, the same narrative has been peddled by the judiciary and executive in India. Umar and Akhil are still behind bars whereas Kapil Mishra walks scot-free. We must realise that in India, democracy has already been murdered in cold blood without repercussions, just to consolidate power.

On a lighter note, great work, you guys. Keep it up. Really enjoyed NL Recess with Dr Guha. One small suggestion: if there would be some way for us subscribers to skip Abhinandan's incessant "pay-to-keep-news-free" pitches, cause guess what, we already have. Instead, maybe replace that with "karare le chane", which is far more entertaining. Jk! We love Abhinandan.

Regards.

PS: Please let me know if this is shortlisted to be read out on Hafta.

Pritom Sarma

JRS Computation (Geophysics),

The Fredy & Nadine Herrmann Institute of Earth Sciences,

Hebrew University of Jerusalem

***

Dear NL Hafta team

This is in response to Manisha's query of how much time off should be given to someone for their wedding. I got married two weeks before my PhD thesis defence. We had a 15-minute civil wedding ceremony and a dinner party in the evening with a grand total of eight people with us. Both my husband and I went back to work the next day.

While Abhinandan might be very happy if all his colleagues simply came back to work the day after their wedding, people should be allowed to have time to celebrate their union. I wish I had planned my wedding a little better and had taken some time off before going back to work. In my opinion, three weeks of leave is appropriate but four weeks might be too long. But that could just be me, having spent years in academia conditioned to think that science comes before self.

Regarding the issue of brain drain, when I left India to pursue my studies abroad, both in Sweden and now in the US, I was shocked to see a radically different approach to learning. Here, I was intellectually challenged and taught to think critically about scientific problems about my research. Additionally, the idea that it is okay to question your teachers and that professors do not always know the answers was an eye-opener. In India, to question someone "higher" than you is to show disrespect. A small step in improving the state of our institutions would be to stop being in love with authoritarianism.

Thanks

Tanushree Pandit

***

Hello NL team,

Hope you guys are doing well. In episode 310, you guys were discussing the case of Assange. Without giving much opinion, I would like to give you link to this short summary video of what kind of charges are pressed on him by US government.

Hope this helps.

Love your work. Please carry on the great reporting that you guys are doing. Hopefully 2021 will be the year you have massive subscriber growth.

Cheers

Amit Kamble

***

Hi team,

Aandho me kaana raaja! But kaana nevertheless.

You guys do a great job. But that's a cliché.

But you do a horrible job of brushing everyone with the same paint: something you criticise the mainstream media of doing many times, without the nuance, of course.

In Hafta 311, you accused "godmen" like Ramdev of not doing anything substantial for the society without ever having visited a Patanjali clinic or a hospital. The "whatever" guru has positively changed lives and your "whatever fuck" can't take it away.

His politics are questionable and maybe unethical by many standards, but credit should be given when due (and with interest).

Second, what you called "sunk cost" in past episodes is correctly termed as "cognitive dissonance" in psychology. And the more I hear Mehraj, the more I think he suffers from it greater than Modi supporters do.

And last, you guys are awesome :)

Cheers

Arun Singhal

***

Hello everyone at Newslaundry,

Love your podcasts but have a small request: please let Raman and Mehraj complete their sentences. Here's looking at you, Abhinandan and Manisha.

Maybe you can pass around a pen/baton/tiffin box – take your pick and only the person holding it can speak. Many a times, Raman starts a very interesting anecdote and he's interrupted midway and the audience is left in suspense.

Thanks for the amazing work you all are doing.

Kamal Murthy

***

Dear Team NL Hafta,

This is in response to Mr Pandey. I am afraid you missed the point; it is not about a free market but deregulation, agriculture in India is already a regulated free market. What the current bills do is open up to corporates while taking away rights.

1) Nowhere in the world does the "free market" operate in agriculture. They all subsidise farmers, from the EU to the US. Look at Bihar even, to see this complete deregulation has failed.

2) Ashok Gulati is the Shekhar Gupta of agriculture. He hailed demonetisation as a masterstroke, so let's not even go there.

3) The way the bills were passed, no farm union asked for such reforms, including the RSS farm union, and were not even consulted, not to mention how they were passed in the Rajya Sabha.

4) If the bills are so good and will improve farmers' incomes, then why have an issue about mentioning MSP as a legal right? By that logic, let's do away with minimum wage and let corporates decide what to pay you at the end of every month. If you want to incentivise farmers to diversify, pay MSP for vegetables like Kerala.

I always wonder where the free market goes when billionaires get tax cuts and NPAs; then, there are no issues, no price discovery is distorted, and we always have money to do that. Mind you, the Indian farmer receives one of the lowest subsidies in the world according to OECD data.

Please read P Sainath and Devinder Sharma's work on agriculture. I recommend this article about democratic rights.

I can go on and on but I'll take a moment to appreciate NL's work and farm protests coverage and also recommend the interview with Balbir Singh on NL.

Warm Regards,

Hemal Thakker

Student of International Relations and Environmental Studies,

Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po

***

Hi Hafta team and other supporting staff,

If you read this letter on Hafta, please don't reveal my identity.

I apologise for exceeding the word limit but I tried my best to squeeze the message into minimum possible words. Hope you don't mind.

This is in response to your discussion in Hafta 311 about WhatsApp's new privacy policy. The discussion dovetailed around online advertisements and the consensus seemed to be (paraphrasing): "Fine, show me ads, I won't buy, so it does not affect me."

This attitude towards what Facebook does is very uninformed and reductive. As journalists, I don't have to convince you about the need for online anonymity and privacy. However, I do want to make a case for why nobodies like me should also strive to maintain online privacy. In the process, I hope to convince you why the discussion should not be limited to online advertisements.

Facebook collects humongous amounts of data from its "users" (more on this later) primarily to profile them so that they could be served with targeted advertisements. The data is fed to algorithms which are designed to find patterns in large datasets (machine learning and artificial intelligence are buzzwords for this process). For example, if a user is a member of many hiking groups, the algorithm categorises the user as a hiking enthusiast. This is a very straightforward model which is perceptible to a human brain.

The state-of-the-art algorithms are capable of combining data from many such sources to cobble together models that are infinitely more complex and capable of finding patterns that are beyond human perception. In Facebook's case, the algorithms are optimised to categorise people according to their interests. A neat side-effect of these algorithms is that they end up revealing much more than the desired parameters, for example, people's political affiliations (*cough* Cambridge Analytica *cough*).

So far, there is no regulation or transparency on data sources, how much of it should be fed to these algorithms, and what these algorithms should be optimised for.

Many of the predictions these models make are applicable to people who don't use Facebook. For example, decriminalisation and widespread societal acceptance of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities in liberal democracies has led to people of the LGBTQ community openly declaring their sexual and gender identities on Facebook. Based on this data, imagine for argument's sake, the aforementioned algorithms come up with a model that could predict a person's sexual orientation and gender identity from their profile pictures. Facebook would be free to sell this model to a repressive illiberal government which could then use it to identify and persecute people of the LGBTQ community. These unfortunate people, irrespective of whether they come out on Facebook or not, would be victimised because the models would be applicable to them as well.

Although this example is hypothetical (famous last words), one must not forget that these algorithms are progressively getting ever more sophisticated and accurate. There is no saying what they might be capable of predicting in the future.

Moreover, Facebook subjects you to data collection irrespective of your consent (hence "users"). Say Abhinandan doesn't use Facebook but is in Manisha's, Mehraj's and Raman's contacts lists, who all use Facebook. Facebook's algorithms know there is this one person with a phone number xxxxxxxxxx, who is friends with Manisha, Mehraj, and Raman.

Say Abhinandan has a credit card linked to the xxxxxxxxxx phone number. If the credit card company sells its transaction data to Facebook, they know who Abhinandan is. These are called shadow profiles – profiles that Facebook internally maintains to feed to their algorithms but doesn't show externally on their website. There is no government regulation to prevent this. (See also browser fingerprinting, this is a whole can of worms on its own and deserves another post.)

I hope it is clear that targeted advertisements are just the tip of the iceberg. These pattern recognition algorithms are capable of much more. There is a need for governments to step in and regulate them but it is not obvious how they should be regulated. Additionally, the will to regulate is absent in many governments (*cough* BJP *cough*) because collaborating with Facebook helps them stay in power. I must add that although I selectively bash Facebook in this letter, other internet behemoths are guilty of these practices too to varying degrees. As a society, we need to wise up to these emerging challenges and collectively try to minimise their data-hoarding tendencies.

Thank you for reading and keep up the good work. We can unfuck this world!

***

Hello Newslaundry team,

I am a recent subscriber to Newslaundry. I love all the work you are doing.

In the last podcast, Abhinandan Sir said something like how it does not impact you much if you're using WhatsApp. I have a really different view.

WhatsApp says: "All messages in WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted." I would like to read this as, "Only messages in WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted." So, everything else in WhatsApp is up for grabs by Facebook.

For example, there is a "stories" option on WhatsApp. Based on the stories we view, whose stories we view, how many times we view, and how much time we spend on one story, it can tell a lot about our choices, behaviour, likes and dislikes. It's like a smaller, condensed version of Facebook feeds. It cannot see what message we send, but it does record when we send a message, to whom we send it, how frequently we talk to someone, which groups we're in, and which others are in these groups.

This data can be used to form a social circle of a person, knowing who we're close to and who we're not. It's like a social graph of us, like mapping the whole population and their connections with each other.

Now, WhatsApp also records our IP address, which is unique for every device on a particular network. It can also identify whether we are on a Wifi or cellular network. Generally, when in office or at home, a lot of us use Wifi and when we're outside, we use cellular data on our phones. So, when this data is taken for a long period of time, it can identify which IP address is supposedly our home/office.

iPhones are easy to identify for an app-maker because of the app store. But I was recently deleting my Amazon account and I observed that it precisely knew which Android phone I had. There are fewer permissions for the Amazon app so it's highly likely that it's very easy to know or guess what Android phone we have.

So, WhatsApp might also know this. The type of phone does loosely represent a person's wealth range.

WhatsApp is one of the biggest collectors of metadata in the world. When combining this information with our Facebook data, it can even refine each user's information with Facebook. Not to forget that Facebook has one of the best facial recognition systems and I think our photos on our WhatsApp profiles are also not encrypted. This make enable Facebook to uniquely identify us easily.

Another problem is that data can be stored and even if they might not have a good use for the data now, they can be easily used for any purpose in the future.

For services like Facebook audience network, Facebook puts its ads on trusted third party apps and websites.

Facebook Analytics is very similar to Google Analytics and, when combined with the Facebook audience network option, it advertises on Facebook as well as other third party apps and websites. These are paid services like Google Analytics where they get revenue from this.

I recommend reading the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff and I love Newslaundry’s “let us know” podcast series about big data.

Thank you,

Ravi Singh

***

Dear all,

I would like to remain anonymous as I don't trust the Indian state because I am married to a Pakistani woman. You can read the rest of the mail.

I was born a man into an upper-caste Hindu family in India. I found Aishwarya Mahesh's mail initially incredibly infuriating. After a few deep breaths, I decided to try and offer a different perspective. If she wants, I will not oppose talking to her as long as she respects my privacy.

I live in the US and am happily married to a Muslim woman (non-Indian). We were in love for five years and it was tough to convince our parents to let us match; while she is very liberal on a lot of matters, she is religious and was afraid of marrying a non-Muslim. During my relationship with her, I also read up on various Dalit activists like Ambedkar and Periyar, which led me to question my religion and caste privileges.

To cut a long story short, I converted in private to Islam. I have kept it under wraps because I know it will cause my parents pains as they are semi-devout Hindus. I haven't changed my name, but for many other purposes, I do not consider myself a member of the Sanatan Dharm (even if I think of myself as a Hindu.) I converted not only to ease my wife's mind but also because I felt myself moving away from the religion, thanks again to people like Periyar, and felt attracted to the Sufi mystics of old Delhi, especially Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

Now people like Aishwarya would say that it is wrong for my wife to have wanted me to convert to her religion, and they are entitled to their opinion. What they are not is to pass laws that prohibit me from converting to marry the love of my life. It is tough to marry outside your religion; adding more obstacles makes no sense to me.

What particularly offended me was Aishwarya's insistence that true love does not require compromise. I do not know if she is married or not, but I can assure her that in my five months of marriage, religion was the smallest thing I had to compromise about.

And to Manisha, as someone who also got married during a pandemic, I share your view that we deserve extra days off simply because pandemic weddings are so stressful!

Your long time supporter

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Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

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