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. Driven by the huge demand, data breaches are happening every now and then. The outside world may have already known everything about you.
Tech giant’s advantages
“Technology and algorithms produce no barriers,” said Jiang Qingjun, CEO of the credit service company Suan Hua Zheng Xin (算话征信). Jiang Qingjun was graduated from the School of Mathematical Sciences of Peking University. As he sees it, technical talents abound on the market for algorithms work, which is deemed by many as advanced sciences. “The real barrier is indeed the access to user data,” said Jiang Qingjun.
He Chong’s company that leverages AI to provide targeted marketing services also suffered in 2017. A while ago, a smartphone vendor, which He Chong had been in talks for a while, was “intercepted” by an e-commerce giant. At that point, he had already had the marketing model in place for the vendor and was only one step close to nail the deal. But, the e-commerce giant got in and snatched it away.
“They (tech moguls) have readily available user data, while we still rely on models to predict the users’ behaviors. How can we compete with them?” said He Chong.
For example, when the e-commerce company finds that 10% of the Samsung users are starting to browse devices made by Huawei, it can then transfer that data, of course under certain conditions, to Samsung. With that data, Samsung can launch targeted marketing to woo its defected customers back.
That is a hurdle He Chong’s company can’t surmount. “In the past, we could get some data from other sources. Now, those sources have been knocked out. So the data business is now dominated by a few giants,” said He Chong.
Only a large pool of user data can help win over major customers. “Let’s say a customer comes to us with a request for targeting 50,000 people. We can only make money when 80% of the targeted people fall into its target customer bracket. That’s actually very demanding for the hardware and software systems,” said He Chong.
If, as Jack Ma had put it, data is the oil of the 21st century, then, the battle for it had kicked off long ago.
Fight for more control
In February 2017, the first lawsuit over big data broke out in China between Sina Weibo and Momo, when Sina Weibo found out that Momo, a social networking app in China, had been scraping Sina Weibo users’ information like profile image and professional background without seeking Sina Weibo and users’ prior consent. Momo and Sina Weibo had signed an agreement on user data sharing back in 2013, but, besides the data that fall into the scope of the agreement, Momo also took such information as educational background, professional background and phone number. The case ended up with Momo paying Sina Weibo RMB 2 million for compensation.
Data is what the companies can’t afford to lose in the digital era. The giants are increasingly tightening their grips on their data resources, so much so that they even reach their claws into the other companies’ territory. Frictions over data resources thus arise.
In August 2017, the spat between Linkedin and HiQ, a data analysis company, ended with the Northern California U.S. District Court ruling that Linkedin can’t prevent HiQ from accessing its public profiles.
Around the same time, Tencent accused Huawei of breaching its users’ data privacy, because its Honor Magic, evidently, had been secretly harvesting the users’ chatting records on WeChat and QQ, and digital footprints.
As was once put by Li Kaifu, the development of artificial intelligence is impeded by “seven hurdles”. They are Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon and China’s BAT. “They are sitting on huge amounts of data, yet they seem unwilling to share. This won’t help to advance the development of artificial intelligence,” said Li Kaifu.
The government is also beginning to wake to the data’s significance to the operation of the whole society.
Several months ago, the National Internet Finance Association of China (NIFA) passed a resolution to launch a personal credit information platform (Baihangzhengxin), calling upon the third-party credit services providers, including Zhima Credit and Tencent Credit, and the internet firms, including Baidu, 360 and NetEase, to contribute their data.
The NIFA will hold a 36 percent stake in the forthcoming platform and the other partners will get their corresponding shares in line with their respective contributions. Three years ago, the Chinese government announced that it would issue, in total, eight licenses to organizations eligible for gathering personal credit information. But, not even a single organization was found eligible until 2017. Neither did it issue any licenses.
Competition between countries
The fight for the control over data resources is not unique among companies, it is also happening among countries. This is evidenced in the newly enacted Cybersecurity Law of the People’s Republic of China, which has specifically mentioned the issue of cross-border data transfer.
“Personal information and other important data gathered or produced by critical information infrastructure operators during operations within the mainland territory of the People’s Republic of China, shall store it within mainland China. Where due to business requirements it is truly necessary to provide it outside the mainland, they shall follow the measures jointly formulated by the State cybersecurity and informatization departments and the relevant departments of the State Council to conduct a security assessment; but where laws and administrative regulations provide otherwise, follow those provisions.”
Data now is the world’s most valuable resource, so it makes perfect sense that a country wants to exercise full control over its own citizens’ data.
Toutiao, a news aggregating platform powered by AI algorithms founded in 2012, is now valued at USD 11 billion. Its success is a demonstration to the fact that “AI+” is increasingly replacing “internet+” to be the next business “infrastructure”.
Undeniably, our live are getting easier with the abundant data-driven options on the market. The apps now know what kind of news we’re interested in. The advertisement is getting more targeted, and the map and car-hailing apps can work out, automatically, the optimal routes to our destinations. These all seemed novel to us decades ago, but, today, they are all standards in our daily lives.
So don’t be surprised if a strange receptionist calls out your name when you walk into a shopping mall and recommends to you exactly the type of products you fancy. The smartphone in your pocket might even be able to talk to you as a “human being” one day. Judging from the development speed of AI technology, it won’t be too long before we can live, in our real lives, those scenarios, which now exist only in science fiction films.
As exciting as that sounds, this doesn’t mean that the companies can harvest the users’ data by any means and then use it on any purposes. Whereas the data shall be collected with the users’ consent and used for intended purposes. The rule offenders shall also have their fair share of punishment so that the ones that play by the rules are not driven out.
However, at a time when every company is snapping up data, exercising restraint is really hard.
Wei Cong is a “seasoned” cybersecurity expert. The undisciplined practices of those data collection companies have nearly worn down his confidence in them.
To protect his personal privacy, he had developed the following habits: 1. setting passwords with at least 15 characters and include different kinds of marks as well as both capital and lowercase letters. His passwords are so complicated that he has to save them in a password manager for later use; 2. picking a unique password for every one of his accounts; 3. verifying his credit card bill at the end of every month to ensure that his card is not breached.
Even so, he found, disappointingly, a while ago, that his account on Sina Weibo was stolen anyway.
“I’ve taken all the preventive measures I could, but they still didn’t help to protect my personal privacy,” said Wei Cong.
(On request of the interviewees, the names He Chong and Wei Cong used in the article are both aliases. KrASIA’s writer Lin Ting also contributed to this article.)