The thing about online privacy

Over dinner, a friend mentioned that he was recently alerted on Facebook that a Facebook friend of his, Satish, had visited so-and-so porn site. The alert apparently came on his News Feed as any other ordinary Facebook update for suggestions on pages and websites. He made fun of it, saying, “So, that’s what Satish is up to these days when no one is looking.”

But this is no laughing matter, I told my friend. What Satish does in his private life is up to him. Unless Satish willingly shares his private life with his friends, online or in the real world, it’s his life and it should remain with him. No one has the right to spy on Satish’s private life and share it in a public forum or on a social network such as Facebook.

My friend, of course, took my response lightly, saying this was a chance incident… that Satish may have signed in to the porn site using his Facebook id and not realised it. An argument ensued between us, and I challenged him with, “What if someone shared on social media some of our private conversations where you’ve complained about your boss or your wife?”

“You wouldn’t do that,” my friend countered. “And, since no one else is listening in to our conversations, our private conversations remain private between us.” We ended the conversation and our dinner on that confidence; but a doubt lingered. What if our private lives were accessible to others without our knowledge – and then, one day, shared publicly to our surprise?

No, that can’t happen! Can it?

The thing is, in our normal real-world lives, we don’t believe – nor imagine – that someone will spy on our conversations or track our activities… let alone believe that they will share these publicly. We believe our private lives remain private. We believe that we enjoy that privacy as citizens of a democratic world. And, we dive into our online lives on those same principles.

The strange and scary thing is, our online lives are not private. The moment we log on to the internet, various internet companies and even government agencies are tracking us.

Our emails are scanned top to bottom by the email service provider. Our searches on search engines are tracked by the search engines we use. Our web histories are recorded and documented by the web browsers we use. Even our visits and searches on specific websites are tracked and have a tendency to follow us around online though we may no longer be interested in that website or that search result. It can be annoying!

Every click, every word, every post, every search, every phone call, every site visit, every location we visit or pass through… are all being tracked, mapped and stored somewhere as data. Even if we delete everything we’ve ever done on the internet, nothing is lost. Once it’s on cyberspace, it remains on cyberspace for ever. We may not be able to see them and believe these actions of ours on the internet don’t exist any longer, but we’d be wrong. They do remain on cyberspace and can be found by those who wish to find them.

What’s worse, we are constantly being profiled by all this data. Those who are tracking us deduce our profiles from all the data they collect on us… which tells them fairly accurately who we are. Not who we think or who we believe or who we say we are; but who we really are. That’s because, using algorithms and computer codes, they have deduced our profiles from our actions while we are online. And, believe me, these profiles are far more accurate than what (or how) we may describe our own profiles.

Of course, we don’t realise that we’re being tracked, mapped and profiled because it happens silently. We don’t feel anyone is reading our emails or monitoring our movements on the internet; we don’t see anyone taking our photo surreptitiously or recording our conversations. We believe no one will be interested in our lives in such manner and share it with others. Then one day, like my friend’s friend Satish, we find ourselves exposed!

In most democracies, we go about living our lives without a care in the world – sharing our personal data, views and opinions, photos and videos, joys and fantasies, locations and moods online (some of it instantly).

It gives us pleasure in sharing so much (for instance, what we had for breakfast), particularly when friends urge us on with their ‘likes’. It, often, feeds on the narcissistic side of our personalities as well – the ‘selfie’ being one such symbol of this behaviour – but that’s just us enjoying our freedom of expression.

Some of us are careful about sharing too much of our personal lives online, and restricting access to our data consciously through strict privacy settings to our social media profiles. Many of us are also careful about what we share in public forums such as blogs, Twitter, YouTube or other websites and online platforms.

Do read: Top 12 Important things Money can not buy

But many among us are carefree, particularly the younger generation, who believe that – apart from enjoying our freedom of expression – sharing openly is necessary for social interaction and trust; going so far as to suggest that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear.

It’s only when our online follies are exposed (unknowingly to us) to public view that we realise the importance of privacy. The surprise and shock of discovering what we once thought was private or a harmless admission and which is now visible online to everyone can be frustrating and emotionally devastating. Worse, it may jeopardise our lives and our careers.

Sadly, some of this negative online exposure happens later in our lives, or in unexpected ways, catching us unaware. It may simply be a matter of logging into a porn site with a personal email or a social media id which leads to this breach of privacy. Or, perhaps, a causal comment against the government on a social media platform which leads to an arrest.

Then it can haunt us for the rest of our lives.

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