Centre for Internet & Society

Before you accept a fun app into your digital ecosystem, prepare yourself for the data you will be giving away.

Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore. The article was published in the Indian Express on April 17, 2017.

So, I hope, by now, you have figured out who your celebrity lookalike is. Mine, for her sins, is Emma Watson. Now, as you scratch your heads and wonder how a “facial recognition algorithm’”decided that my mug matches with the stunning actor who shall always remain imprinted as Hermione Granger to my Harry Potter- fan-boy self, it is worth wondering how on earth I know this.

If you have been on Facebook the last week or two, you will have noticed that almost all of your friends, as if drawn in a zombie apocalypse, taking this quiz and posting their results. It was a simple enough app — you upload a picture, and then using advanced computer morphing, it shows how your face transitions from yours to the stunning celebrities that we love and worship.

Nothing better on a Monday morning to know that the barely human face you are wearing — a mixture of grump and where-is-my-coffee — actually looks like the photoshopped avatar of a celeb. In many ways, this was a truly progressive app because it refused to look at gender, race, ethnicity, age or any of the other criteria of biometric representation and no matter what super-grouch face you presented, it always matched you with the celebrity you always secretly wanted to look like anyway.

Now, listen! I know that the earnest value of social media is essentially in apps like these. The point of these apps, which are largely just a continuation of the old trash magazine quizzes about self-determination and expression, is that they continue to enthrall, enchant and make our everyday click-and-scroll lives slightly more memorable and enjoyable. However, unlike those old Cosmo and Vogue quizzes which you secretly took to see if you are more a Miranda or a Carrie (I know that is an old reference, but hey, this is an old quiz!), these apps have a more sinister dimension.

When you clicked on that small app, because your friend did so, you did not count on three things. One, that as you nonchalantly clicked on ‘OK’ giving permission to this app to your Facebook profile, you also gave it consent to access your almost entire social media profile. Most of these apps are able to now look at your friends list, your contact list, your messaging history, your photo-gallery, and can access your microphone and camera, to give an answer that is so fake, it can easily masquerade as an elected official.

Second, that you might have taken the test for a moment of childish fantasy and then decided to move on with your life. Except that even if you did not share that post, the results were saved because you gave that app consent to use your uploaded picture in its own advertisement and also gave it authority to show your friends that you were stupid enough to take this test. This also includes your boss on Facebook, who might see what you were doing at 2.44 that afternoon when you were sitting in a serious meeting that was supposed to engulf you. Just like your friend might not have actively shared the first click-bait post but the app posted on their behalf.

And third, you gave this app the permission to not only harvest your Facebook profile for data that it is going to sell to third-party consumers who are curious to know about your location, age, eating habits, cultural preferences, friendship networks, and mood representations so that they can customise advertisements to sell you things that you didn’t know you wanted. In the world of Big Data, a single click-based consent can be the beginning of an avalanche of data mining, where, before you know it, all your correlated data across all your apps – sometimes sensitive data that might even betray your financial and physical safety — can easily be harvested, and all because you wanted to check out a fun app.

Apps pretend to be benign and often are so. However, when you accept an app into your digital ecosystem, it is sometimes useful to be slightly more cautious of what the added value of the app is. And before you say yes, it might also be good to just take a little more caution about what permissions you are granting it, and whether you really want to give away that data for a moment of fun. Facebook and other social media networks will continue to warn you about keeping your information private and safe from strangers. However, they will refuse to remind you that when you are online, your private data is more likely to be harmfully abused and used by apps with celebrity pictures and dancing babies, rather than the friend from school who has already probably put you into a block list.

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