Travelers to US need to be extremely cautious of what’s on their social media: Shukoor Ahmed

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Shukoor Ahmed, CEO, V-Empower Inc.

NEW YORK: Indian American angel investor Shukoor Ahmed is the CEO of V-Empower, Inc., based in Maryland, which specializes in information security, web and mobile product development. It was rated as one of the fastest growing companies in the US by Inc. Magazine in 2007. It was also a Deloitte’s Fast 50 honoree (Ranked #1) for 2007 in Maryland and (Ranked #7) in 2008. It also won the Minority Business Award by Business Journal in 2008.

Ahmed, who emigrated from Hyderabad, India to the US almost two decades ago with $500 in his pocket, is also the founder of Statedemocracy Foundation. He has several distinctions, apart from running for the Maryland House of Delegates.

Ahmed built the 1st ever application which connected citizen with elected officials in 2000 (www.statedemocracy.com); built the 1st ever application which connected citizens of India with their member of Parliament in 2002 (www.indiademocracy.com); built 1st ever voter registration application for County Executive Candidate in 2002; built 1st ever voter registration and absentee ballot application in 2004; built crime tracking tool in Prince George’s county in 2006 (www.crimeblotter.org); built the only application which allowed Democrats to lobby super delegates (www.lobbydelegates.com) in 2008; and built www.pgballot.com (2010), which allowed citizens to make their own sample ballot. He also built an iPhone application for Marylanders to find polling location, confirm their voter registration and check on the status of absentee ballot application.

Deeply involved in politics, he has had several stints in campaigns for top notch politicians. He was Field Director, Bill Bradley for President 2000; State Director, Joe Lieberman for President 2004; Prince George’s County Coordinator, Bill Richardson for President 2008; Internet Director, Jack Johnson for County Executive, 2002 & 2006; and Campaign Manager, Katina Johnston for Congress, New York, 2002, among others.

An enthusiastic social worker, Ahmed has immersed himself in community service, working with several non-profits, social organizations and faith groups. In fact, between 1992 and 2006, he volunteered on average 30 hours a week with such causes. Some of these groups included Lutheran Social Services, Winter Haven Homeless Shelter, Habitat for Humanity, State Democracy Foundation and Ayesha & Ali Padder Foundation.

Ahmed has a Fellowship in Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland; a Master’s in Public Policy, American University; BS, Computer Information Systems, from Strayer University; and BS, Mathematics & Physics, from Osmania University.

Ahmed and his wife, Nabeela Ahmed, who traces her roots in Pakistan, have two daughters, Raaheela Ahmed and Shabnam Ahmed.

In an interview to News India Times, Shukoor Ahmed discussed several social media and internet privacy issues, including the Trump administration’s decision to strip privacy rules for browsing on the Internet, and what measures needed to be taken in an era where social media is being checked by immigration agents at border checkpoints.

Excerpts from the interview:

Are you for or against the Trump administration stripping Internet Privacy Rules?

I am against the passage of this legislation. I am disappointed that our members of Congress have opted to vote in favor of corporations over consumers. I am pretty sure those who are passionate about privacy will find ways to block browsing history and reward some of the Internet providers who may protect their privacy.

Facebook just launched a new ‘Town Hall’ project on their mobile app which allows users in the US to connect and communicate with their elected officials. Mark Zuckerberg wants people to be more ‘civically-engaged’, according to his global vision. You launched www.statedemocracy.com 16 years ago, with the same objective, but shut it down 10 years later. What happened? Any regrets?

Our application was very innovative. We probably should have built a scale-down version than a full blown application. In 2001, we had difficulty bringing elected officials and citizens on a platform. We spent a lot of money on technology, not a whole lot on marketing. Lack of growth in user base hampered our ability to generate revenue. We made www.statedemocracy.com into a non-profit and kept it updated until 2010. We were not able to sustain as many elected officials to move towards web-forms (a long version of contact instead of emails). It was unsustainable due to lack of funding with escalating cost and rapid changes as social networks started to take over and made it easier to connect on social networks.

What does Facebook need to do to make Town Hall a more effective tool? I see that not all elected officials have their phone or email address there; it just connects them to their Facebook page. Some services do give better contact information for legislators, including Action, 5 Calls, and Countable.

Facebook has an enormous advantage on the users end. They obviously need to put some efforts towards elected officials to sign-up and share their contact information. They are positioned to provide a long list of services from 1) ability to contact, 2) allow users to provide input on federal, state and local legislation, 3) they could also share public opinion on an issue and compare with a legislator’s view on a legislation, and 4) probably allow interest groups to share their view as well for users to provide informed input to lawmakers.

In an era of proliferation of fake news, and bombardment of ‘facts’ from social media, it’s important voters know exactly what their elected representatives vote on, and what they don’t. IssueVoter.org for instance send out e-mail alerts on bills before Congress votes, and also translates bills into layman’s terms. There’s data to be mined and spun, too. Will technology become the fulcrum around which elections are fought in the future?

Among all social networks, Facebook is probably the most well positioned platform to do everything from the ability to connect with each other, be able to lobby or sway any legislation and even impact the election outcome if they begin to display public opinion and compare with actual vote of the legislator.

In my view, Facebook is playing a very important and significant role already in advocacy and electioneering due to the amount of insight they have on their user.

Google and YouTube at present is staring at a legal nightmare as some top advertisers have pulled out citing adverse publicity from offensive content. How do you see this playing out in the near future?

It is difficult to decipher the news as the attention span of people is shortening. I am pretty sure Google and all news sources will take necessary steps to ensure that that their reputation is not damaged. They will have to balance without too much censorship. We are living in a world where citizens and consumers will also have to do some due diligence and not assume all news as real news or factual news.

Privacy is a huge issue on social media. We are all concerned on how we are being monitored on social media, what information is being leaked. Maybe WhatsApp encryption is safe. I’m not sure. Now, phones are being monitored by immigration agents at airports in the US. What’s your suggestion for travelers to feel their privacy is not compromised?

We are already in an era where we practically have no privacy.  I personally operate and conduct myself as everything is being monitored; emails, phone conversation, social network activity and browsing history. We just need to be mindful that we can’t erase digital footprint easily. Do not get into an email communication or text communication which could put you into a difficult situation. Travelers need to be extremely cautious (of what’s on their social media). Students on F-1 visa should be careful not to have communication on social media about job opportunities when they are traveling to the US.

Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ has already raked in $750 million at the global box office. A major aspect has been the almost 2 million tweets sent out to promote the film. The YouTube sensation Lilly Singh whose debut book hit stands this week is a product of the social media. Snapchat is now traded. When it comes for a business, how important is it for startups to promote themselves or could it prove detrimental at the onset? Should they wait it out a bit?

Yes. Tweets and ‘likes’ may help promote a movie or an artistic talent on social networks. It is just easier to measure on social networks. We can’t measure how many times we watch a movie on DVD or listened to a song in the car. If I am building a solution or an App as a startup, I would ensure the quality of the product speak for itself than spend a lot on marketing.

India is often chided as not savvy and creative enough to produce a Facebook or Apple; relegated to only the IT services sector. There are plenty of tech hubs and startups in India, yet they are dwarfed when it comes to FDI in startups compared to a small country like Israel. What’s the reason for that?

Our company hired over 400 employees in last 16 years in India and only two of them turned out to be entrepreneurs. Whereas, in the US we hired about 90 employees in last 16 years and 14 of them have become entrepreneurs. Many smart engineers prefer to work and not be enterprising and also it is difficult to test some of the ideas locally. Israel is a smaller country with fewer engineers and talent and they will never be able to build Infosys, TCS, Wipro with their pool of engineers. India is huge and the early companies opted out for services because of a bigger pool of engineers. I believe most of the start-ups are being funded by FDIs and there needs to be local investments by investors and entrepreneurship should be encouraged.

Coming to business in the United States, there’s been a significant dip in startups in Silicon Valley; venture capitalists have tightened their purse strings. As a first generation immigrant and tech entrepreneur, do you see this phenomenon as a short-term one?

I have seen the dot com bust in 2000 and how many start-up failed. There may be a little worry in Silicon Valley as some companies’ valuation is huge even though they are not profitable yet. I believe, good ideas do get funding and I would probably not take investors’ or VCs money and rather bootstrap and proof the concept and then seek funding for expansion.

Are you an advocate of increasing the H-1B visa program, or do you think it needs to be reformed for the American labor market and its needs?

Many industries need highly skilled workers and we need to continue the H-1B visa program and determine the number on the basis of market needs. Having too many can create an oversupply of workers and having too little will not meet our needs.

You are a Muslim from Hyderabad in India; your wife is originally from Pakistan, a Muslim too. You have two daughters who are active in civic life, and proud of their heritage and Muslim identity.  Do you feel safe under Donald Trump’s presidency?

Absolutely. We live in city of Bowie which is part of Prince George’s county in Maryland. We are very fortunate that our daughter is serving on the Board of Education representing 90,000 citizens and about 33,000 of them voted for her. Our roots in the community is very strong and we try to be a good example of our ethnicity and faith. If we were living in a red state or not as involved, we probably could have felt vulnerable.

What’s your hope for America?

The best is yet to come and with all its political divisiveness, we are an awesome nation.