A professor during my engineering days at ETH Zurich first taught me about the negative side of Artificial Intelligence. Though AI back then was still in its nascent stage, he still could predict it. He said that one day data will be the costliest resource, and it will become a threat to our privacy! That prophecy left me unnerved for a while, but like every other youngster in college, I just chose to ignore it.

Those words now come back to haunt me! Every day! With the advent of technology and AI, how safe is our personal data?

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Just a few years ago, facial recognition seemed like something out of novels or movies, but now, that is all it takes to unlock our phones! That does sound like quite an achievement! But, despite its achievements, it comes with a huge threat for all: users, companies and the government.

Of course, this technology can be extremely helpful in tracking down criminals, but they can track down and continuously monitor people like you and me, no matter where we are and what we are doing. This is dangerous. The question of ethics and privacy is very crucial when it comes to data. We all know that China has a reservoir of a considerable amount of data. In fact, we don’t even know the exact amount of data they have in store till now.

China has been the primary instigator for AI surveillance around the globe. Chinese companies like Huawei, Hikvision, Dahua, and ZTE are the biggest suppliers of this technology to many countries, Huawei being the biggest of them all. All these Chinese product pitches come with a soft loan to incentivise the governments of different countries to buy their products. They have specifically done this to countries like Kenya, Laos, Mongolia, Uganda, and Uzbekistan, who due to the absence of resources and bandwidth, have fallen for this. It does raise an eyebrow as to how much of subsidy Chinese government is providing for other countries to delve into such repressive technologies.

As I had mentioned in my earlier article, there is a reason why China has a huge benefit in developing such cutting edge technology. They have an authoritarian government coupled with a massive reservoir of personal data which often helps them to shift privacy to the back seat. If we look at the case of Huwaei, they got blacklisted from the USA last year as they posed a threat to national security. But that did not stop them from supplying surveillance equipment including facial recognition to over 230 cities across the world, from western Europe to parts of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. It is the largest supplier of AI video surveillance in the world!

But now let us take the Indian market in perspective. The highest selling smartphones in India are all belonging to Chinese brands. In fact, several Chinese apps have also taken up the internet space in the last one year. It ranges from social media apps like TikTok, Like and Kwaito video streaming apps like Vigo video; from photo editing apps like Beautyplus to gaming apps like PUBG. We should also not forget the shopping apps like ClubFactory, Wish, Shein and ROMWE. The similarity is that most users of these Chinese phones and apps are first time internet users specifically from the tier two cities of India. The dubious privacy agreements are also a point of contention when it comes to where our data is stored and who can use it.

We have seen numerous protests in India against these Chinese apps for illegally collecting and sharing data with China, violating user privacy, spreading misinformation and anti-national messages.

With the current government making stringent provisions for data protection, we see companies such as Bytedance, Xiaomi and Alipay agreeing to store data locally. We can only hope that this will be a huge step forward and will compel all the other companies to open their local data centres in India.

About Abhinav Khare

Abhinav Khare is the CEO of Asianet News Network and also the host of a daily show named Deep Dive with AK. He has a lifetime collection of books and gadgets and has already pinged more than hundred cities around the globe. 

He is a tech entrepreneur, who is passionate about policy, technology, economy and philosophy from ancient India. He earned an MS Engineering from the ETH Zurich and an MBA Finance from the London Business School.