Digital data is the new ‘Oil’

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Tabish Qayyum

WHERE spread of Coronavirus pandemic has led to many challenges, it has provided humans with a lot of opportunities but with some conditions attached to them. Everyone was talking about Information Technology revolution and importance of big data before this pandemic, but vitality of both elements has increased tenfold in daily life amid Coronavirus. It is because social media chatrooms have become most favourite thing for people instead of going to restaurants, online shopping instead of going to shopping malls, and watching movies on Netflix instead of going to Cinemas. These are just some changes brought about around the world just in initial phase of COVID-19, but a post-COVID-19 world is beyond one’s imagination. However, world is entering digital realm at a fast pace than previously imagined. Internet and online services are bound to increase as 5G Internet Speed and IOT ‘Internet of Things’ is knocking at our doorsteps. This is possible with the help of digital data as institutions and companies are demanding more personal information from people in return for online services. Hence, this large amount of digital data has become more valuable to business firms, tech giants, governments and global institutions than anything else.
Furthermore, there is a sharp rise in data breaches around world as cyber domain is burgeoning. The [in-]famous data-mining scandal in which Cambridge Analytical firm harvested data of 85 million US voters to influence voting behaviour in favour of US President Donald Trump in 2016 election. Similar techniques were allegedly used to influence Brexit referendum. US Intelligence Committee in its recent findings has warned that Russia may try to influence 2020 US elections by similar information related operations. In addition to this, cyber domain is witnessing greater traffic amid Coronavirus which has made it vulnerable to data breaches and cyber security attacks by hackers. So, one might ask what makes Data so important? In words of Christopher Wylie, “We now live in a world where there are invisible spirits made of code and data that have power to watch us, listen to us, and think about us.” The personal data of individuals is available on social media profiles in the form of data. The situation has become more complex with advent of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence in which a large amount of data is used for decision making. Therefore, line between public and private domains is becoming thinner and hackers are trying to exploit vulnerabilities in online domain.
These developments in cyber domain have made governments around world to upgrade their data and privacy laws to meet modern day challenges. In 2017-2018, some countries that have enacted data privacy laws have risen from 120 to 132, which is a 10% rise after ‘modernization’ of convention 108 of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Some 28 more countries have official bills in various stages of progress including Pakistan. Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunication (MoITT) has recently formulated a draft bill with the name of “Personal Data Protection Bill, 2020” to protect personal data of individuals. It is because internet usage in Pakistan has increased by 15% amid Coronavirus. Therefore, this draft aims to “govern the collection, processing, use, and disclosure of personal data and to establish and making provisions about offences relating to violation of the right to data privacy of individuals by collecting, obtaining or processing of personal data by any means”. In July 2018, the MoITT also drafted Pakistan’s first data protection law which set maximum two-year imprisonment and five million rupee fine for unlawful processing of personal data. The law-making in this regard is need of the hour in Pakistan. The data of 115 million Pakistani mobile phone subscribers was sold on darknet for 1.17 million USD as per unverified reports. Hence, it is imperative to have transparent data-protection laws that should protect cyber domain without encroaching the right of individual privacy.
The world is changing as Tech giants are making more money than oil industries like Aramco. It is because Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft are extracting terabytes data that have made data precious than gold and oil. During the pandemic, these Tech giants have become more important as they use Artificial Intelligence tools to provide big data solutions. Google and Facebook are partnering in providing location-based solutions to fight pandemic and private data is accessible to governments and regimes. This has become a matter of concern for Digital Right groups and NGOs in Pakistan which are demanding transparent laws to protect digital rights of citizens which should not discourage dissent and independent and critical voices. This situation demands a larger debate in Pakistan’s academia and policy circles to bring all stakeholders to table. MoITT has taken the right step to invite feedback from stakeholders so that data protection laws and policies should be more transparent to meet international standards.
—The writer is a Research Scholar who focuses on Digital Politics, Social Media Weaponisation and Counter Terrorism Studies.

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