April 17, 2014

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Satyam and the Inadvertent Web

Satyam is one of the handful of large companies who dominate the IT outsourcing market in India, A week ago today, B. Ramalinga Raju, the company chairman, confessed to a years-long accounting fraud. More than a billion dollars of cash the company claimed to have on hand, and the business success that putatively generated those dollars, now appear to have been fictitious.

There are many tech policy issues here. For one, frauds this massive in high tech environments are a challenge and opportunity for computer forensics. For another, though we can hope this situation is unique, it may turn out to be the tip of an iceberg. If Satyam turns out to be part of a pattern of lax oversight and exaggerated profits across India’s high tech sector, it might alter the way we look at high tech globalization, forcing us to revise downward our estimates of high tech’s benefits in India. (I suppose it could be construed as a silver lining that such news might also reveal America, and other western nations, to be more globally competitive in this arena than we had believed them to be.)

But my interest in the story is more personal. I met Mr. Raju in early 2007, when Satyam helped organize and sponsor a delegation of American journalists to India. (I served as Managing Editor of The American at the time.) India’s tech sector wanted good press in America, a desire perhaps increased by the fact that Democrats who were sometimes skeptical of free trade had just assumed control of the House. It was a wonderful trip—we were treated well at others’ expense and got to see, and learn about, the Indian tech sector and the breathtaking city of Hyderabad. I posted pictures of the trip on Flickr, mentioning “Satyam” in the description, showed the pics to a few friends, and moved on with life.

Then came last week’s news. Here’s the graph of traffic to my flickr account: That spike represents several thousand people suddenly viewing my pictures of Satyam’s pristine campus.

When I think about the digital “trails” I leave behind—the flickr, facebook and twitter ephemera that define me by implication—there are some easy presumptions about what the future will hold. Evidence of raw emotions, the unmediated anger, romantic infatuation, depression or exhilaration that life sometimes holds, should generally be kept out of the record, since the social norms that govern public display of such phenomena are still evolving. While others in their twenties may consider such material normal, it reflects a life-in-the-fishbowl style of conduct that older people can find untoward, a style that would years ago have counted as exhibitionistic or otherwise misguided.

I would never, however, have guessed that a business trip to a corporate office park might one day be a prominent part of my online persona. In this case, I happen to be perfectly comfortable with the result—but that feels like luck. A seemingly innocuous trace I leave online, that later becomes salient, might just as easily prove problematic for me, or for someone else. There seems to be a larger lesson here: That anything we leave online could, for reasons we can’t guess at today, turn out to be important later. The inadvertent web—the set of seemingly trivial web content that exists today and will turn out to be important—may turn out to be a powerful force in favor of limiting what we put online.