The last 5 decades was a time when America and Britain were the only bearers of technological innovation while the rest of the world was just responsible for somehow catching up to them after a decade or so. One country, china, made their entire development stride just by copying the western innovations. Fast forward to today and the tables have turned, China, India and Singapore provide a more promising future today than any of their western counterparts (Yes, even a struggling China). East is guiding innovations in many fields. Surely there are positives and good news everywhere, but with great power comes great responsibility. Today, we’ll be talking about one such responsibility that we face in terms of security and privacy.
When it comes to Information Technology, Chinese markets have a history of producing cheap rip offs of every app that is present in the world (much like their Armani suits and LV bags). Actually, The Chinese Internet is more like the intranet i.e., a largely walled-off version of internet that separates it from the other world through complex filters and firewalls. Basically, they just block every site or service that the Chinese government doesn’t want. So to fill this gap (google, Facebook or YouTube) have sprung up many domestic equivalents or Chinese rip-offs of these sites. They have Baidu for Google, Youku for YouTube, Sina Weibo for Twitter and list goes on. While there are many apps that require exact resemblance to their international counterparts, being an isolated version of internet also gives them ability to experiment and develop features in some different ways so as to cater to some specific domestic needs. This has started to cause things to shift a bit. Some of the features developed by these Chinese apps are so amazing that even their western parents are trying to copy them. Also, these Chinese apps have started to grow so big that they have started to dominate and in some cases influence the concepts of business, privacy and security as per their needs. Aaand yes, this does sounds like silence before thunder.
But before binging into that lets just look at the success story of one such Chinese app that has created a big stir in the App-Industry. We are talking about WeChat. WeChat has accumulated more than 400/700million monthly users in just 3 years and literally two-thirds of china has a WeChat account. So, there is no case doubting its virality or usefulness. WeChat includes a range of more than 5mn accounts from diverse Industries. And every day more than 15000 new participants join WeChat. It took Facebook 54months to get to 100mn users but it took WeChat 15 months to do the same. They are not just changing the society but also changing the way information is transferred from one person to another. Similar apps have started growing roots (if not directly them) in other countries, India too has got many applications similar to these like tapzo.
Let’s look at an example to explain the working of this revolutionary WeChat app to better understand the problem. WeChat is like a Super app. It’s a Swiss army knife that does everything for you, it’s your all apps in one and way more, things that have not even developed in other parts of the world. But, it’s not the variety of things that we can do that makes them so powerful, but it’s the fact that they are all on one app. Imagine your normal day and the number of apps you use, you take Uber to go to a meeting, you use Myntra to buy some clothes, you use amazon to buy the phone you were waiting to be launched, you use WhatsApp, Facebook and twitter to talk to your friends, use Evernote to save your ideas and HT news to read some current affairs. On an average day you use 8 to 10 apps depending upon your need. So now Uber knows where you are, Myntra knows what clothes you buy, Amazon knows the phone you’re using and WhatsApp knows who you talk to. While this is a lot of information, all of it is in bits and pieces. Enters Tapzo, an all-in-one app, now you book an Uber with tapzo, buy clothes, phones and even home decor using tapzo, while talking to a friend on tapzo and reading a news article on tapzo. So now tapzo has more information on you than your closest friends and family, a dream come true for advertisers. And while this seems creepy we need to remember that Tapzo is nothing compared to WeChat. WeChat has all of these features and many more… There are virtual infrastructures that have not even been developed in other parts of the world. In China, there are hospitals that have built their entire booking systems on WeChat, there are investment services, even heat maps that show how crowded a place is and the list of services goes on… and with the variety of services grows the information gathered which rests solely with WeChat.
Now this is not a problem for anyone who can afford this facility at the cost of privacy and obviously there is actually no such concept of privacy in 21st Century. Google watches almost everything you search every app you use and every video you watch but with these new generation of apps know exactly when you booked a cab what food you ate at the restaurant, what you are talking about and not just which fashion app you use but also which clothes you bought and the people you talk to, they know who you’ll vote for in the elections before even you have made the decision. It knows what you do right from the moment you wake up to the time you go to sleep. The level of penetration we are talking about now is unprecedented. The information of this kind and order can help gain insights into the most personal parts of our lives. On one hand it can be very useful to the extent that it can save lives (search history may predict suicidal patterns) but also on the other side they can also decide on our emotional levels, change the way we behave and eventually even cause us to take our lives. In short, Facebook has the ability to make you feel good or bad, just by tweaking what’s shown up in the news feed (Search: Facebook Manipulation Experiment). So while in the last century companies decided which clothes we buy or which car we drive, now they get to choose when we feel happy or sad and which government we vote for (Yes, a major reason for Trump’s victory has been attributed to false news being circulated on social media). They get to not just snoop on, but also decide on whether we stay happy or sad. And in WeChat’s case its about 700 million people.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s a problem of privacy until it’s a normal company but it becomes a problem of security pretty soon if the same company has its roots in some creepy Business or worse-Shady Governments. There are some countries on this planet where the companies are forced to share their data with the government by Law, so indirectly your data is in the hands of this government, only this time the amount of data and the level of penetration is at a whole new level. Also, no need to stress about the fact that these are the same governments that have had a long record of Human Rights violation (Tibet, Factory Workers, Uighurs) and is not very shy about stalking its citizens. Some of the prospective cases have already been discussed in India. (Search: WeChat a worry for Indian Govt.) What will this mean for the years to come? Will we finally draw the line or will the privacy and control of our lives continue to slip into oblivion. Food for thought!