Data in the Digital Age

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Some tech companies are so data-hungry that they are using synthetic data, generated using AI to fill in the gaps and mimic real-world patterns.

Visitors look at an AI sign projected on an animated screen at the Mobile World Congress, the telecommunications industry's biggest annual conference, in Barcelona. — AFP/File

From the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you set your alarm for the next day, and even while you sleep, your life is recorded in a continuous loop of digital surveillance via high-tech devices.

Our actions, interactions, preferences, and nearly every aspect of our digital lives are being monitored and turned into data points. This monitoring extends to personal data from sources such as search history, social media platforms, web pages visited, and virtually every aspect of our digital presence.

Given the speed of technological advancements, it seems like data is now being processed much faster than it is being generated. In fact, some technology companies are so hungry for data that they are using synthetic data generated using artificial intelligence (AI) to fill in the gaps and mimic real-world patterns. This thirst for technology is driven by several factors, most notably targeted advertising and improved AI models.

Targeted advertising allows tech companies to increase their revenues. Google’s revenue from advertising in 2023 will be $237.8 billion, a significant portion of its total revenue of $305.6 billion. Similarly, Meta will reach a record high of $134.9 billion in terms of revenue generation, with 98.5% of its revenue coming from advertising from social media platforms. These figures suggest that these tech giants rely on “surveillance capitalism” for their business model, even at the expense of personal privacy. Unfortunately, the purpose of targeted advertising goes beyond financial gain, extending to manipulating public opinion and pushing vested political agendas.

Another trend that is accelerating is the race to lead in AI. AI models rely on large amounts of data to improve their capabilities. Since 2020, the training data used by AI models has grown exponentially. Online content, including articles, documents, posts, videos, podcasts, and more, has become the backbone of the burgeoning AI industry. The more data that can be extracted from online sources, the better positioned industry leaders are to improve their AI models.

These trends should make internet users think hard about the implications of their online presence and personal data becoming raw material for marketing and AI training. There is a significant asymmetry in how well-informed these tech platforms are about their users' data, and how little users are aware of these companies' basic privacy/data usage policies.

This asymmetry allows digital platforms to predict individuals' behavior and influence them accordingly. This is especially true on social media platforms, where personal data is voluntarily shared, creating a digital footprint. The scope of this phenomenon goes beyond just targeted marketing. The more personal the data, the more accurate the profile that tech companies maintain. From your preferences to where you are at certain times of the day, the more accurate the profile.

Ultimately, there is a looming threat that individuals will be reduced to mere data points and manipulated for various purposes and benefits, causing serious long-term harm, infringing on personal freedoms, and leading to widespread exploitation and control.

To be fair, tech gadgets and such data mining aren't going away anytime soon. It's up to users to take more responsibility to mitigate the existing asymmetries. One thing we can do in this regard is to understand the value of our personal data, no matter who it belongs to or where it comes from. To dilute privacy concerns, tech companies have promoted the narrative that their use of data is “necessary” and somewhat unavoidable. But if personal data weren't so valuable in the first place, companies wouldn't try so hard to get it.

Therefore, it is essential to think carefully before posting any personal information online, especially personal images or sensitive information. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but personal images reveal secrets and data much more than you can imagine. Therefore, you should think carefully before posting anything online. Less is more. Another important step is to log out of unnecessary apps that keep running in the background on various tech gadgets. Internet netizens should be careful as emails can also have trackers embedded in them.

It is better not to open suspicious emails or links, in fact you should have separate emails for different purposes: one for personal communication, another for work-related matters, a third for online shopping, banking and subscriptions, etc. This will allow you to better manage your privacy and security.

Additionally, using a separate browser and search engine, setting complex passwords, enabling auto-updates, using two-factor authentication, avoiding third-party apps, installing reliable firewall protection, reviewing app permissions for minimal access, and frequently reviewing privacy policies are also important to reduce personal cybersecurity risks.

The above measures, while they may seem fairly simple, can help mitigate some of the risks associated with data mining. Finally, there is an urgent need to raise awareness of existing data security and privacy laws, and of individuals' rights and responsibilities to protect their personal digital information.

As technologies such as smartphones and AI turn science fiction into reality, it is essential that we take proactive steps to consider potential risks. Technological devices, social media platforms and apps are a source of entertainment and comfort, but they can also be risks. It is up to users to responsibly manage their interaction with technology.

The author is a research fellow at the Centre for Aeronautics, Space and Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad. He can be contacted at

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