Say Hi to The Age of No Privacy (Part 1)

We are increasingly becoming mere data generators in a world that’s heavily driven by data.

Photo by Sai Kiran Anagani on Unsplash.

Editor’s note:

Cybersecurity is increasingly a problem that troubles you and me.

Data breaches, hacked cameras, email/telephone scams… Worrying news hit the headlines every now and then.

In this data-driven world, companies are so craving to know who you are, with industries from finance to healthcare and from advertising to e-commerce thirsting for data more than any time before.

We hope for a better world where technologies are so advanced to eliminate illness and bring about endless prosperity, but be prudent before we get there. The outside world may have already known everything about you.

This is the Part 1 of a 5 Part-Series. Link to the Part 2Part 3Part4 and Part 5.


Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash.

Welcome to the age of big data and a world of no privacy.

Perhaps you have only some inkling of how your personal information is being exploited, but in the eyes of many who are involved in the business, privacy has never been in such jeopardy as it is today.

Among them is the network security engineer Wei Cong, who was first alarmed by an October 2016 incident in which NetEase Email supposedly came under a hacker attack that led to the leakage of over 100 million data entries which included information like usernames, passwords, IP addresses and users’ birth dates.

The company denied that its database had been hacked and claimed instead that the data breach was only because some of its users used the same usernames and passwords for their mailboxes as they did for the services of the companies that fell victim to the series of hacker attacks launched then.

However, Wei Cong was not convinced. He downloaded the leaked data pack and found it to be gigantic in size.

One of his colleagues keeps a habit of blacking out the personal information on shipping boxes, including the recipient’s name, phone number, and shipping address, before discarding them, after she learned that the waste collector in her neighborhood had been collecting and selling the shipping labels on courier packages.

She doesn’t want to become the target of cold calls or telephone scams.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash.

This colleague of Wei was particularly shocked by the much-reported Xu Yuyu incident, in which a would-be college student from an underprivileged family died of heart attack after being tricked into transferring 9,900 yuan (around $1520) as tuition fees to a phone scammer.

She, therefore, figured that it’s always right to take extra caution with personal information since the same thing could happen to anyone. Yet the sad truth is that no matter how many shipping labels she blacks out, she may still be unable to protect her personal information from being leaked.

“Resorting to waste collectors for personal data is already obsolete,” Wei told KrASIA. “They are now purchasing invoices directly from Taobao merchants, for five yuan (around $0.76) each.”

A data-driven world:

The world has become more data-powered than ever before.

Fraud is just one of the numerous uses of leaked personal information. At a time when much of the public talk is dedicated to topics like artificial intelligence, personalized recommendations, and targeted precision, the outside world has never been so craving to know who you are, with industries from finance to healthcare and from advertising to e-commerce thirsting for data more than any time before.

This is demonstrated by the fact that in no more than a couple of years, China has nurtured a 2.1 billion yuan-valued (around $322.5 million), New Third Board-listed data service provider—Datatang.

Data has emerged as the most important issue of the “Neo Business” era.

According to an insider, Alibaba has constructed 741 data collection dimensions for the creation of user personas.

Photo by José Martín Ramírez C on Unsplash.

“There are even more for weakly-typed data,” said the insider: “The company knows everything from what you’ve purchased and your purchase frequency to where you live and how much money you have in your bank account.”

The year of 2017 has seen the fight for data among large companies intensify. In the meantime, the issue of data privacy has sparked more widespread concern.

Just to name a few examples: talent analytics firm hiQ Labs was confronted in court by Microsoft-owned LinkedIn over whether it was acceptable for the hiQ to scrape the public data on the latter’s website; London’s Royal Free Hospital was disclosed to have handed over personal data of 1.6 million patients to Google’s DeepMind without the patients’ consent; Uber chose to pay hackers $100,000 in ransom to delete the stolen data of 57 million user accounts.

Things like these were a rarity in the past. Three years ago, when Jack Ma, the e-commerce tycoon, spoke of data being the most powerful energy of the future, it was more or less dismissed as empty talk.

What we are seeing now, however, is an intense clash between the temptation felt by the business sector to exploit personal data for profit and the public’s desire to protect their privacy.

China, the startup paradise:

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

China has been viewed as a startup paradise by the tech-savvy returnees from Silicon Valley due to its relatively loose regulation of data breaches.

“It’s actually not that difficult to design algorithms. What’s really coveted is access to medical data,” noted the founder of an AI-enabled, healthcare-focused startup whom KrASIA spoke to.

“In the U.S., patient data is strictly protected by law and therefore hard to acquire, but in China, establish cooperation with a medical institution and you will gain access to its database and be able to use the data to train your AI models.”

Big data and AI technologies can improve diagnostic efficiency and accuracy and have the power to change the world, but they may come at the cost of your privacy. Without you knowing it, your medical data may flow from your doctor’s computer to a third-party company.

Technology may be innocent, but the profit-driven business sector never knows when and where it should stop when it comes to exploiting personal data. Web crawlers and techniques that enable the rooting of mobile phones, among others, have flourished as a result, threatening data privacy more than ever before.

Photo by Gilles Lambert on Unsplash.

The threat is so real that the government felt a need to step in.

In May and July of 2017, the Ministry of Public Security and Office of the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs conducted two successive inspections of the country’s big data-focused enterprises. In the May inspection, 15 companies, including Datatang, was called in for talks, in which questions were asked about their data sources and business models.

Other internet firms that control large amounts of personal information, such as employment websites also received warnings from the regulator.

Big data-related transactions have long hovered between what’s acceptable and what’s not. We are literally living in Truman’s world where everything is scripted, with the help of big data.

Writer: Sun Ran and Zhang Yuxi

Editor: Yang Xuan, Zhao Xiaochun

Link to the Part 2Part 3Part4 and Part 5