I want to write about our data, your security, and the ever-burning question of privacy and its discontent on the social web, all triggered by the viral FaceApp challenge. Timelines have been flooded by people using this free app to see what an AI thinks they will look like 20 years from now. And they haven’t stopped at just themselves. Their friends, their families, their pets, their favourite celebrities, and stars have all been morphed by this “free” Russian-made app, which takes data, overrides all consent, and shows your future old-face.
However, I know that by the time this column reaches you, you will not only have moved on from the viral seduction of FaceApp, but will also have been admonished by every critic, activist, advocate, and woke friend on Facebook, for trading your privacy and personal data to join the mass-sheep movement that we call social apps. You are either irritated by now about people lecturing you of the risks of using apps that exploit your digital footprint to manipulate your future behaviour, or you are shrugging it off as a trade-off that you are happy to make because you have “nothing to hide”.
Any alarm or pangs that you might have felt when you first read about the potential privacy vulnerability hidden in this app have long since been assuaged by the mindless scrolling through the thousands of pictures of your social circles ageing. If you are like me, perhaps, you have gone over to the dark side and laughed at the naiveté of people who talk of graceful ageing in the face of imminent climate collapse.
So I won’t talk to you about the danger of these apps and how you must be more careful with protecting your privacy. Because, the bottom-line is that you don’t care. And I don’t mean you, the individual reader. I mean the collective, Facebook-friends-forever you, that has long since stopped caring about what happens to things that we can’t see. Data Privacy indifference is not just a new normal, but alarmingly, even after the stunning expose of data-driven manipulation and AI regulation post the Cambridge Analytica revelations, it seems that we don’t care.
It is easy to blame the users — call them ignorant, label them indifferent, chastise them for not being digitally literate, call for awareness and outreach — but that is perhaps the easiest of the scapegoats. All the people who have been smugly announcing that they won’t use this app because they don’t want to feed the machine-learning beast with more of their private data, have largely been targeting individuals for their callous agnosticism when it comes to data sharing. However, what most of these responses fail to take into account is that the user has long since been installed in a condition of precarious data mining with no way out.
We can blame FaceApp, but we have to realise that every app, platform, service, device, institution and organization involved in the digital social web ecosystem has been primarily working as a data broker, selling us all without knowledge, but with consent. FaceApp is the flavour of the week, but it is merely following in the tradition of all our digital intermediaries who have now naturalised the system of capitalizing on our private data for profits. The woke bros can go around pointing fingers towards those who did use the app, but they must surely recognise the hypocrisy of using the social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on their Android and iOS phones in order to perform their digital sapience. Because we might ban FaceApp, mount a scrutiny to evaluate the vulnerabilities, and help people avoid it, but FaceApp is just one in millions of data leaks that are built as the default in our digital deliriums.
To call the user ignorant or negligent is to conveniently abdicate the digital infrastructure owners and providers of their wilful, deliberate, and designed policies that compromise user data and privacy for gain. To put the onus of using this app and leaking data on to the user is to gloss over the fact that our laws and policies are woefully inadequate to protect the individual user against this continued data extraction, correlation, and consolidation. To laugh at the user who used an app for fun is to ignore the reality that these apps are verified, promoted, and shared without impunity because it is merely doing what the social web was designed for. So use FaceApp. Don’t use it. It doesn’t matter. Your individual actions are not to be blamed or celebrated. The only real change that can come in how we manage our data privacy is going to be in collective accountability of digital intermediaries and an active responsibility on the part of civil and political societies to step out from under their influence.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Digital Native: Blame it On Big Brother’