Policy Engagements and Blogs

Understanding Data Privacy


All information collected from our activities online is creating what we call our digital footprint, and contributes to our profiling.

We live in a digital, interconnected world. Almost all of us own a smartphone and are present on some social media platform. Most of us never actually read the lengthy terms of service for any of the platforms we are signed up on. Most websites today require us to share seemingly harmless bits of information about ourselves, in small parts, which are then kept on file. Over time, these small bits of information can be neatly combined into categories and comprehensive sets of information, called data. Most people do not feel the need to ‘protect’ their data, because the general perception is, what do we have to hide?

Whether it is through shopping online or using online maps to navigate our way, we are mostly comfortable sharing some of our personal data with online platforms, and with time, the number of these platforms have risen exponentially. This means that all aspects of our lives – from what we watch, what we wear, who we speak to, what we buy, where we are, where we are going, how we are going there, and even our vitals such as blood pressure and heart rate are slowly becoming data points, being put together in categories to create profiles to specifically target us for advertisements.

Digital footprints are available to buyers and make us vulnerable.

A major problem with this profiling is that, as our data slowly gets collected and linked together, it is stored with different for-profit private companies that can sell these profiles to advertisers looking to influence us into making decisions they would like us to make. The more money a firm has to offer, the more data they can get their hands on, and the better they can craft strategies to sway our decisions. It is important to remember that a for-profit company is currently not required to give us rights. Also, they get to define what ethics mean for them. While, sometimes these platforms are required to disclose how they will store and use our data, and what data they will have on file. Often, this is actually disclosed – deep within the lengthy terms of service, which almost all of us never read.

The other pertinent drawback is the vulnerability of this data. With news of data leaks becoming very common, it is important to question how safe our data is. Sensitive information such as credit card details, passwords, location details etc. can be misused in case of a data breach, such as in May, 2016, it was reported that IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation) website was hacked and personal data of 10 million customers was feared to be stolen. We have already witnessed the debate on Facebook leaks and its impact on the US elections.

We must participate in protecting our data.

We must ascertain how we are sharing our data online in order to protect it. By keeping a check on our privacy settings, only sharing relevant information and reading the terms of service, we can try to keep our data more safe. In an age where sharing personal information and connection globally through the Internet has become the norm, we must consciously be more vigilant to avoid online profiling. And importantly, participate in the ongoing legal debate around the data protection law in India as responsible citizens, a topic that was discussed at length in the second Metamorphoses panel discussion, here.

This learning video has been produced by Centre for Policy Research as part of the Metamorphoses – Talking Technology project, being executed in partnership with NITI Aayog and India International Centre.