Opinion: The devaluation of personal data in the age of AI, surveillance and monetisation

Individual user data is not unworthy of privacy for corporations and the government to devalue it and AI to use it as a cheap commodity for data crunching

BySidharth Sreekumar

Published Nov 09, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedNov 09, 2023 | 9:00 AM

personal data privacy AI

This first week of November saw some significant and concerning events regarding data privacy in India. On the one hand, we had the potential targeting of personal devices of Opposition leaders and journalists, while on the other, there was an alleged leak of UID (Aadhaar) data of over 80 crore Indians.

This is not the first time such data leaks have happened, nor the first time concerns have been raised about the Indian government infringing upon personal devices.

Individually, each of these is a significant cause for worry. Still, taken together and laid in the context of an ongoing and historical misuse of data in India, they should set off alarm bells for every citizen.

Also read: Why does India need a data protection law?

Growing desensitisation over personal data

However, what is more concerning is that with each leak and each breach, there seems to be an increasing desensitisation and devaluing of personal data.

The protests are growing muted, and the public response to such horrendous lapses is becoming increasingly apathetic. The leakage and misuse of data are gradually being considered the cost of living in a digital world.

Ironically, in the backdrop of all of this, courtroom arguments are also raging on the need for the privacy of political donors and keeping electoral bonds as opaque as possible.

The solicitor general of India argued on behalf of the government that: “Electoral bonds do not carry the name of the buyer or payee in order to protect the citizen’s right to privacy to its own political affiliation and to choose to fund a political party of its own choice, without the fear of being targeted or suffering vindicative repercussion for owning such a choice.

“It is in furtherance of the state’s positive obligation to safeguard the privacy of its citizens, which necessarily includes the citizens’ right to informational privacy, including the right to secure the political affiliation of its citizens.”

Also read: Data breaches during Covid times

Political versus individual data privacy

So what do we make of this apparent dissonance between caring about political donor data privacy and being quite laissez-faire with individual data?

The answer to this must be viewed in the broader, global context of data capitalism, which considers data a monetisable resource and a valuable final output.

This means that personal data, depending on who it belongs to, what it entails and who plans to use it, can have varying levels of value and protection. In this tiered system, an individual’s personal data sits very much at the bottom rung and is essentially viewed as just raw material for businesses and the State.

An excellent example of this is Meta, which is considering charging users in Europe for the privilege of not having their data being used to target ads at them.

Also read: A chance for Indian government to proactively regulate AI arms race

Corporate and government privacy lapses

This move is to partly counter European data privacy regulations, which have long been held as the global standard of ethical data governance, and partially to drive profits for a tech firm whose most significant asset is the amount of data it has collected on its users. The fact that they can even consider this points towards a growing apathy and fatigue towards personal data protection.

Unfortunately, given the vast amount of personal data currently being generated by each of us and how sharing this data is essential for us to benefit from many services and technological advancements, it is only inevitable that we grow apathetic to the privacy of our (and others’) personal data.

This sense of personal data devaluation also extends to our response to lapses and breaches of privacy by corporations and governments.

Moreover, suppose we are to expand the definition of “personal data” (which generally implies any information that can be used to identify a user personally) to include any data uniquely created by the user.

In that case, we can see the growing devaluation of an individual’s data at the altar of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Many current AI advances are being made by consuming vast amounts of user data (text, images, audio, video, etc) created by people and then being used to train models that can produce “original” AI outputs.

Also read: XCheck and the murky waters of Internet censorship

AI and personal data equations

Given the rate at which the general public has adopted AI tools such as ChatGPT and Midjourney, it is clear that there is a general embrace of this data devaluation where we are more than happy to feed these models our ‘cheap’ personal data to generate more valuable outputs.

Recent judgments favouring the AI creators over the original creators of the input data will only reinforce the growing sense that individual user data is just a cheap commodity to be utilised by more sophisticated systems.

So, while it is horrifying to see the latest data leaks and government encroachment into personal devices, the worry should be that this is just part of the larger, dangerous and irreversible trend of personal data devaluation being seized upon by businesses and governments.

We need to continuously lobby for better protection norms and accountability to ensure that even if personal data does become a cheap commodity, it is handled with the utmost care, transparency and responsibility.

Also read: Believe it or not, the world of deepfake has gone way too deep!