RIP online privacy

Roopinder Singh

Is nothing private online any longer? I am sure there is, but two major blows were struck to the perception of online privacy recently, and we should all take note of these events because they have, rather should have, a lot of impact on our lives.

Wikileaks came online in 2006. An Australian, Julian Assange, runs this international organisation that publishes leaks of documents that are not available otherwise. This Sweden-based body preserves the anonymity of its sources. This year, it has been in the news twice. In April, it posted a video titled “Collateral Murder” which showed an American helicopter shooting down what turned out to be Afghan civilians. Last week, it released the “Afghan War Diary”, in which more than 90,000 documents were opened to the general public about the war in Afghanistan.

The American government is incensed at the leak, the FBI is looking into it, and the US Secretary of State has condemned Wikileaks for ‘endangering the lives of soldiers’, but Wikileaks promises to post more documents in the near future.

Another event that shook the online world was the release of personal data of more than 100 million Facebook users. This accounts for 20 per cent of the members of the world’s most popular social networking site. Facebook announced on July 21 that it had 500 million users, up from 150 million at the start of 2009, and the question is not if it will have a billion users one day, it is when this will happen.

A company called Skull Security released the file that has publicly accessible information of the users, including their names and profile addresses, to point out vulnerabilities in privacy controls of the site. No doubt the private information of these individuals was not compromised, however, Facebook is being disingenuous when it says: “Similar to the white pages of the phone book, this is the information available to enable people to find each other, which is the reason people join Facebook.”

According to experts, the data “takes one massive step out of the equation for advertisers-finding and aggregating the data of millions of users who are searching for information on younger people,” who, incidentally, are a vast majority of Facebook users. And Facebook founder and boss Mark Zuckerberg has defended the sharing of data with advertisers on the grounds that it keeps the site free for users. It is safe to assume that few, if any, of the users of Facebook would have thought that even the public data that they posted could be valuable to advertisers, and could thus be trolled.

Soon after the announcement, I asked my son if he had changed his password. “We all knew about it in school and my friends and I changed the passwords. I have also deleted all the mail in my inbox,” he said.

At one point, I had seen his profile and those of some of his friends, and found that most of them had fairly strict privacy settings, something that is rare on Facebook. Many people tend to go for the default settings on Facebook, and don’t bother to change them to more private ones. Also, there is a widespread perception among youngsters that they are anonymous, since no one would be interested in them anyway.

They are wrong. What they do, how they go about it, what interests them, all is valuable information for marketers and others whose livelihood depends on identifying new trends and feeding them.

Many people are unaware of the amount of information that Facebook shares with others. When they enrol for various forums or games, or gifts, etc, they should be careful about letting the applications that they use access their data. Also Facebook, when it updated its privacy settings, did so without due caution, as a result of which some users’ settings reverted to the default ‘public’ options.

Just how powerful is Facebook? Here is what The Economist said recently: “A couple of months or so after becoming Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron wanted a few tips from somebody who could tell him how it felt to be responsible for, and accountable to, millions of people: people who expected things from him, even though in most cases he would never shake their hands.

“He turned not to a fellow head of government but to…Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and boss of Facebook, the phenomenally successful social network…. In a well-publicised online video chat this month, the two men swapped ideas about ways for networks to help governments. Was this just a political leader seeking a spot of help from the private sector-or was it more like diplomacy, a comparison of notes between the masters of two great nations?”

As of now, this comparison is a cyber illusion, but it is illustrative of how the overlap between cyberspace and real human interaction is growing. Thus, to get back to my favourite theme, cyber space is an extension of the real world, and actions in cyber space have real consequences.

Cyber users must be careful about what they put online. Please remember that anything you post can be public. Therefore, you must be careful about what you let out in the public. What goes online has a life and a momentum of its own. It can turn up at the most awkward of times, say when you are about to get job, or your potential (cyber-savvy) father-in-law is checking you out.

In the real world, what you do is often forgotten after a while, especially if it is something stupid and momentary. Online, everything that you do is there for people to see, and most often, it is your friends. Sometimes friends too turn into enemies, and you really don’t want to empower them, do you? If you think that something you are doing online is embarrassing, then don’t do it. For God’s sake, don’t post anything unless you really want it to be public. Online privacy is not quite dead, but actually, it is not quite there too, as the recent Facebook episode shows.

The article was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on August 3, 2010

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.