NEW DELHI : As billions of people share a plethora of emotions on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and what not, advertisers see a future market -- more mammoth than they could ever conceive of. If you have gone through occasional bouts of "feeling blue" and shopped till you dropped in real life, you will understand shopping's therapeutic value, also called "retail therapy".
There is no doubt that tapping into people's emotions online and turning those into key first-party data via artificial intelligence (AI), real-time analytics and deep algorithms will bring unimaginable wealth for marketers and social media giants alike.
Social media companies have begun to decode what their users think, see, feel and react to as they pour out emotions on these platforms, and later feed potential advertisers.
In April this year, Facebook reportedly allowed advertisers to target "emotionally vulnerable" users as young as age 14 in Australia and New Zealand.
It monitored their posts and used algorithms to identify and exploit them by allowing advertisers to target them during their "most vulnerable moments", reported The Australian.
The company collected the information on a person's moods, including feeling "worthless", "overwhelmed" and "nervous", and then divulged the same to advertisers who used the information to target them with ads.
Facebook later admitted it was wrong to target children and apologised.
The practice was similar to a 2014 psychological experiment conducted by Facebook on 600,000 users without their knowledge. Facebook had then tweaked the News Feed of users to highlight either positive or negative posts from their friends.
Alarmed? Read on.
Facebook is now planning to "secretly watch and record users' emotions via their webcams and smartphone cameras". According to a "newly discovered patent", the company will use technology to see how facial expressions of users change when they come across different types of content on the site.
"In another case, the document says that if you happened to watch an advert for scotch, Facebook could choose to target you with more adverts for scotch," The Independent reported last week.
Facebook reacted: "We often seek patents for technology we never implement, and patents should not be taken as an indication of future plans."
For the privacy activists, it is disturbing to know that a software can discreetly measure people's emotions, spot depressed ones and onpass the data to advertisers.
"It is a direct invasion of privacy. When a person uses a device or computer or mobile, he or she is under the intrinsic understanding that his or her personal space is protected and no one can watch him or her activities," Pavan Duggal, the country's leading cyber law expert and privacy advocate, told IANS.
It is not only a direct violation of personal privacy -- but also data privacy.
"In no way should service providers be given the right to remotely activate webcams and smartphone cameras and record the information. Users must be constantly made aware of the potential ramifications of such services before he or she decides to consent to the same," Duggal stressed.
The patent also details how monitoring nearly two billion users' emotions would help Facebook keep them hooked for a long period.
"If this happens, I would say it would be the biggest invasion on privacy because millions of users have already agreed to allow the social media giant Facebook to access to their camera and microphone in the background without consent," Anoop Mishra, one of the nation's leading social media experts, told IANS.
Through this patent, facebook can easily access users' cameras and microphones without any prior intimation and to avoid this, informed users may stop using Facebook or may revoke the access permission of cameras and microphones within the Facebook app itself.
In such a scenario, the governments have a key role to play in the digital ecosystem.
"The rights and duties of data repositories being intermediaries and network service providers must be clearly stipulated in the context of protection and preservation of personal and data privacy," Duggal said.
Ironically, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a picture last year that showed that he keeps the webcam and microphone at his system covered with tape!
Meanwhile, Twitter last month announced that it's allowing users to access the data advertising partners have on them.
"Users will be now able to go into their privacy settings and see which brands are targeting them with ads. Users will be able to choose which interests are accurate and which they don't want to be associated with," the micro-blogging platform said in a blog post.
Opting out completely from being targeted by advertisers is not yet an option, say media reports, but at least Twitter, that has huge first-party data, is giving users an option to tailor their lists.
In today's digital life and existence, privacy is increasingly becoming a rare commodity.
"We require a strong cyber law to protect the online privacy of people. It must be remembered that people are not guinea pigs and their privacy cannot be invaded upon by any stakeholder," noted Duggal, also a Supreme Court lawyer.
According to Mishra, "for marketers, the sharing of users' data is going to be a hit as they could make a bundle instantly".
- Nishant Arora