When I first saw the notice saying that the terms of WhatsApp’s privacy agreement were going to change, I panicked. In my mind, at least, there was some reason for that panic. I sometimes share my writings with friends and publishers on WhatsApp, and I was afraid that Mark Zuckerberg would simply claim copyright on whatever I shared thus. Then came TV interviews with technology experts and lawyers saying that WhatsApp was going to swallow up everything you put on it, and let Zuckerberg do with it whatever he likes, which they said was against Indian law. And then Elon Musk came up with something about Signal, an app that allows you to do much the same things that WhatsApp does without gobbling up your data.
This was towards the middle of January, a couple of weeks late, because I see these things only when people point them out to me. I was stewing in my panic, unable to decide whether to change from WhatsApp to some other app, and people were giving me conflicting bits of advice: stay with WhatsApp, switch to Signal, switch to Telegram, get off social media, wait a little and go with the herd, and so on.
So when my professor friend came visiting, I was genuinely glad to see him. “What do you make of this WhatsApp trouble?” I asked him when he was seated comfortably with a cup of tea in his hand and a plate of snacks on the table in front of him.
“Nothing,” he replied, taking a large bite from a hot samosa. The insides of the samosa were much hotter than the outside, and it took him a few seconds to regain control of his scalded mouth.
“Nothing?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he repeated.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What about all those invasions of privacy and so on?”
“The invasions started when you began to enjoy what you thought were the free benefits of the Internet,” he replied.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Take email, for instance,” he said. “You’ve been using it for decades without paying a paisa for it. But did you ever read the details of your agreement with the service provider?”
“No,” I said. “Everyone I knew agreed, and so did I. I never knew there was anything untoward about the agreement.”
“Ah!” he said. “How do you think all the companies that provide the service pay all their employees, and for the software and the servers and everything?”
“Advertising,” I said, hopefully.
“Of course,” he replied. “Business is like politics, like most human activity. Everyone tries to take his work one step past the competition. No one wants to be remembered as the person who let something stagnate and die. Right?”
“Right,” I said, a bit tentatively. I hadn’t really thought about it but he being a professor must have.
“So they’re always looking for opportunities to expand their reach,” he said, “and, with social media the way they are, the simplest way they can expand is by getting to know you better. And do you know why they’re spending so much on machine learning and artificial intelligence?”
“No,” I said. “I was hoping you’d tell me.”
“Well,” he said, “they’ve always had trouble finding people to analyse the data they’ve grabbed. You know, when people go out for a meal, they post photos of what they eat before they eat it. If I post a photo of my samosa on Facebook before I eat it, do you know how much they get to know? From my GPS they know that this is your home, and in a corner of the photo they see a Brand X sofa or a Brand Y TV, so they know about your tastes. But then, can you imagine anything more boring than going through millions and million of photos of samosas or cakes? So, artificial intelligence and machine learning.”
“But I thought machine learning and artificial intelligence were meant to relieve people of the drudgery of things like housework and taking care of old people and so on,” I said.
“That’s what they say,” he replied. “The truth is that they’ve developed all these algorithms to recognize, say, the brand of a sofa in a corner of a photo of a black forest pastry. And they’ve been following you using the GPS chip in your phone. So now they can figure out what you’ll eat next and where, and, besides, your taste in furniture and appliances. Business.”
“Right,” I said.
“And then there are selfies,” he continued, a samosa later. “Social media sites use them to figure out where you’re going for your next holiday, and what you’ll do there, whether you’re stupid enough to try to get yourself in a selfie with a crocodile or at the edge of a thousand-foot cliff.
“Then someone realised that the programs that could analyze all this could also do other things. So there were spinoffs. Those same programs, with small modifications, can also recognise dirt on a floor, or chart a path in a room that’ll get a robot to sweep the floor with the minimum of effort, in the least possible time. That’s dead easy. So is something like facial recognition, or thumbprint identification.
“So, you see, all the good things that they claim, all that wonderful security stuff about recognising faces and thumbprints and explosives and everything, it’s all secondary. It’s a sort of side effect of having to make programs to analyse the largest and most boring collections of photos and videos and GPS locations that people have taken in the entire history of the mankind.”
“So what’s all the protest about?” I asked.
“Umm,” he said, picking up the last samosa. “That’s just misdirection. You know, almost all of us lead such dreary, boring lives. The protesters, they’re afraid people will figure out that their biggest secret is that they have no worthwhile secrets!”