After a long day at work with employees buzzing all around me, I feel glad to get home, pour myself a glass of wine and slide into the other world of mine; the world of online networking better known as social networking. I feel secure as I randomly click on various pages without little knowledge that by doing so I might be actually socializing and exposing more than I have been trying to hide. Privacy is rarely valued till it’s gone; especially when it’s gone within a single click of the mouse. It’s easy to think that online privacy is something that only oversensitive Internet geeks must care about but it has serious repercussions once it starts doing its play with our lives.
Let’s start by picking up the most famous social networking site, Facebook. In return for its services, it pushes the boundaries of privacy by maintaining a record of the users’ personal data such as their name, emails, phone numbers, address and postal code. This is done in order to target a banner advertisement or other marketing pitch to an individual depending upon their interests. This information is readily shared with other companies as well, in the name of the users’ interests. Recently, social networking site, Formspring disabled nearly 30 million registered users’ passwords after most of them were leaked to the Web in their encrypted form.
Similarly, Twitter, Path and other firms were found to be vacuuming users’ iPhone contact lists even though Apple policies forbade it. Also, it has been found that Google was tweaking ads on Apple’s Safari Web browser to install tracking cookies which are blocked on Safari unless the user specifically allows them. That also meant that its advertising arm Double click could follow them. The companies defend themselves by saying that is it a trade off and the only way to serve consumers better and offer them a customized package based on their interests.
Essentially the edifices of privacy that we once thought we understood are melting like ice at the polar ice caps. Before the mobile phone, it was almost impossible without direct surveillance for anyone to know where you were. Now all one is required is to use the check-in option or not even that, a simple tagging or sometimes simply logging in would help you get tracked down. As easy as it sounds, it still took the Assam police force two days to arrest two youth involved in molestation of a young girl outside a bar in Guwahati when the victims were already identified and their facebook profiles were exposed too.
The trouble for all such companies is that 97% of their revenue comes from serving ads. Its profits depend upon the person clicking on the ad placed by them for which they have to monitor the pages the user visits. The Obama administration announced that it would push for all browsers to have a “Do Not Track” button as part of a “consumer privacy bill of rights”, while the Californian attorney general said that applications would have to include privacy policies to tell users what data they would access. But is this where it all ends?
The thin line between public and private is one which we need to define for ourselves. People seem to be blissfully unaware until they’re victimized. They take an interest in watching the public lives of celebrities without realizing that they’re not far off when it comes to their lives being made public. But instead of blaming the online companies, why not rather point at ourselves first who think not more than a few seconds before disclosing valid personal information about ourselves such as while taking a quiz, logging on to a travel or discount site. Why fault the companies for our own lack of awareness?
How much we want to keep private to ourselves and how much of it is to be kept for the world to see is in our control. It’s our prerogative to disclose as much as we consider needful to the world. We need to be cautious about what we post on the internet and not go overboard rather than holding social sites responsible when someone gets fired due to his particular post on a social networking site or somebody’s girlfriend breaks up with them because they found out about their extra affair through their chat history.
While some might wait for the companies to alter their privacy policies with the Government pushing support for this, the others would in the mean time alter what is in their own hands; their privacy to a certain extent. It’s sad but our private life is the trade off we have to be willing to put up with for the services we get from such sites. So, rather that asking ourselves what kind of digital future we want for ourselves, we should ask, what kind of digital future we can create for ourselves.