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Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to logos of social media apps Signal, Whatsapp and Telegram projected on a screen in this picture illustration. VOA

By Nishant Arora

The digital traces of our lives on social media — on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat — are being mined into a trillion-dollar-a-year industry and there is no way out.


We are now the commodity for tech giants who are constantly watching us, sharing our data with third-party organisations who, then, are analyzing that in great details for individual-level targeting, swaying voters, benefitting advertisers and what not.

The new Netflix documentary “The Great Hack” reveals the sordid tale of UK-based and now defunct political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica and its role in swaying US voters in the 2016 presidential elections which brought Donald Trump to power via illegally accessing data of 87 million Facebook users.

The documentary touches upon the biggest fear of our lives: Social media platforms created to connect us have been weaponised and are being wildly used by nation-state bad actors to influence free and fair elections around the world.

The aim is to find out the “Persuadables” — people who do not have fixed views about who to vote for, and then bombard them with targeted ads which happened during the US elections and the Brexit campaign.

Most of us still do not realize that our personal data is out there and is being used against us in ways we do not understand.

It was two whistle-blowers from Cambridge Analytica — Brittany Kaiser and Christopher Wylie — who blew the lid off the dark secrets of their CEO Alexander Nix.

Cambridge Analytica had 5,000 data points on every American — invisible information that was not visible to anyone except the data scientists at the firm.

According to Wylie, the firm was a “full service propaganda machine” and a grossly unethical experiment without people’s consent or awareness.

Later, Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit campaign was revealed, thanks to Carole Cadwalladr, an investigative journalist with The Guardian and all the hell broke loose, leading to greater scrutiny by the US and EU regulators.

Through well-though narration and emoji-based animations, “The Great Hack” sheds light on one of the most complex scandals of our time.


Social media takes over your mental health as well.

Featuring Professor David Carroll who fought to get his data back from Cambridge Analytica and directed by Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim, it exposes the dark arts of data processing.

A conversation with mathematician and data privacy evangelist, Paul-Oliver Deyhaye, led Carroll to submit a data subject access request (DSAR) to Cambridge Analytica in January 2017.

Subsequent media reports blew up the story on the relationship between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to reveal a Nixon-style global scandal for the digital age that has prompted a sea change in the way the world thinks about data privacy.

The idea of people like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was to have a connected world which, in turn, has become a data sharing and selling exercise, “giving any buyer direct access to the users’ emotional pulse”.

In a historic judgment, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week slapped a massive $5 billion fine on Facebook over users’ privacy violations in the Cambridge Analytica case. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) also directed the social networking platform to pay $100 million penalty for making misleading disclosures regarding the risk of misuse of user data.

Also Read: Home Decor: Know How One Can Combine Hotel Chic Interiors with Real House Warmth

Are these fines enough to regulate the tech giants?

We cannot say with certainty that India — with 400 million WhatsApp users and another 300 million on Facebook, 200 million on TikTok and millions on other communication platforms — is not affected by this global data colonization exercise.

We have seen how targeted campaigns reached voters in the 2019 general elections via various platforms and fake news spreads like a wildfire (the way mob-lynching incidents went viral on WhatsApp). There may well be a Cambridge Analytica back home too!

Another irony is: As you watch “The Great Hack” on Netflix, the algorithms are gauging your viewing preferences, and will soon send you a notification on documentaries you would like to see.

You are constantly being watched. (IANS)


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Milky Way galaxy as seen from Chitkul Valley

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has for the first time spotted signs of a planet transiting a star outside of the Milky Way galaxy, opening up a new avenue to search for exoplanets at greater distances than ever before.

The possible exoplanet -- or planets outside of our Solar System -- candidate is located in the spiral galaxy Messier 51 (M51), also called the Whirlpool Galaxy because of its distinctive profile, NASA said in a statement.

Astronomers have, so far, found all other known exoplanets and exoplanet candidates in the Milky Way galaxy, almost all of them less than about 3,000 light-years from Earth.

An exoplanet in M51 would be about 28 million light-years away, meaning it would be thousands of times farther away than those in the Milky Way, NASA said.

"We are trying to open up a whole new arena for finding other worlds by searching for planet candidates at X-ray wavelengths, a strategy that makes it possible to discover them in other galaxies," said Rosanne Di Stefano of the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and Smithsonian (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the study.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The exoplanet candidate was spotted in a binary system called M51-ULS-1, located in M51. This binary system contains a black hole or neutron star orbiting a companion star with a mass about 20 times that of the Sun. The X-ray transit they found using Chandra data lasted about three hours, during which the X-ray emission decreased to zero.

Based on this and other information, the team estimates the exoplanet candidate in M51-ULS-1 would be roughly the size of Saturn and orbit the neutron star or black hole at about twice the distance of Saturn from the Sun.

The team looked for X-ray transits in three galaxies beyond the Milky Way galaxy, using both Chandra and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton. Their search covered 55 systems in M51, 64 systems in Messier 101 (the "Pinwheel" galaxy), and 119 systems in Messier 104 (the "Sombrero" galaxy).

However, more data would be needed to verify the interpretation as an extragalactic exoplanet. One challenge is that the planet candidate's large orbit means it would not cross in front of its binary partner again for about 70 years, thwarting any attempts for a confirming observation for decades, NASA said.

Named in honor of the late Indian-American Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the world's most powerful X-ray telescope. It has eight times greater resolution and is able to detect sources more than 20-times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope.

Known to the world as Chandra (which means "moon" or "luminous" in Sanskrit), Chandrasekhar was widely regarded as one of the foremost astrophysicists of the twentieth century. (IANS/JB)


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