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Someone Watching Over You

On the Net, confidential information is monitored everyday. In a World Wide Web, how much of a factor is privacy?

Someone Watching Over You
Vivan Mehra
Someone Watching Over You
Say No To Cyber-Snooping

  • Get the latest browser that allows you to delete cookies as-you-go. Delete browsing history regularly.
  • Learn the basics of encrypting your e-mail; it's fairly easy to do
  • Use anonymous browsing facilities; get it from Internet Explorer, Chrome
  • Actually read the "privacy policy" while registering on websites
  • Learn how to protect your Orkut/Facebook pictures from showing up all over the Net


There are times in the weekend when Prasanth Mohanachandran's days merge into one long sleepless marathon trawl. He's seeking to see what others are doing, you and I on the Internet. Say, would this group on Orkut want to buy blue jeans? Would another on Facebook want to rent DVDs? Who would click through an advertisement on their profile page?

Like Mohanachandran, who is V-P, Digital Services, OgilvyOne Worldwide, marketers today are grappling with many such questions. Especially since earlier this year, when India's online population officially zoomed to worldwide No. 5. Make no mistake: for all the hand-wringing over low Net penetration, 50 million users is still big business.

Unbeknownst to us, the numbers chase is also changing the way we surf, what we end up seeing online. When we send an e-mail on birthdays, someone knows enough to spam us with fruitcake recipes. When we join an online group, thousands of other members "see" us there. Soon, if we google "flu", the medical authorities will be able to estimate if there's the potential for an epidemic in our city. "Sometimes I find even the ads that pop up next to my searches are so uncannily relevant to what I'm seeking that I just have to click through," says freedom-of-information activist Sarbajit Roy.

What's complicating matters is that there's no doubt the Net is making our lives simpler. We already use it as a way to communicate, do business. As government moves data online, court cases, driving licences, even land records will be more accessible. But all this also raises issues about how much of individual information is "visible". Seemingly, most users don't seem to care about privacy issues online. Should they be worried?

"Half the female, Caucasian public on the Net is probably male," Mohanachandran jokes, highlighting a classic problem with data supplied online by individuals. It is usually unreliable and has a short lifespan. Hence, it's hardly useful for precision targeting by firms. Besides, mass mailers were done to death a decade ago. Still, marketers have resolved an old irritant—people tend to lie about themselves online. We now accept that a person's digital identity needn't be reconciled with the "real" offline person in order to sell him/her anything.

In this way, if we change our status message on social networking to "bored", online ads may try to sell us a joke book. Even when we "express" ourselves on blogs, we leave behind a mine of information that help firms "push" favoured content, services and products at us. Clearly, the Internet is getting transformed from the "anonymous" infobahn we all knew to a giant marketing snowball that eyes everything anyone does online. Is it impossible to use the Internet without bumping into ads you "want" to see? And can we be online without the feeling of being watched?

"The issue here is the consent of the person whose data is being used, or who is the target of ads," says Suresh Ramasubramanian, head, Antispam Operations, at Outblaze Ltd, Hong Kong. "Simply getting his information on the Net is not consent. Any more than if you leave your door open and someone walks in and helps himself from your fridge."

As companies innovate new ways to advertise more effectively, firms like Google are also getting a clear vision on how individual privacy need not be hostage to advertising dollars. Google, among the most used online services in India, has made "personal privacy an absolute priority", says Google India MD Shailesh Rao. "Our business is based on the premise of absolute trust...we don't give away, share or sell private data," he says.

Whatever the assurances, casual surfers need to stop regarding the Internet as a place where anonymity is guaranteed by default, warn security analysts and industry players. The reason people don't already do this is that privacy is an involved subject. Individuals have their own, varying expectations. Besides, on social networking, the rules of privacy are still being worked out, on-the-go.

Daniel J. Solove, professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, argues that there has been "a great dismay" over the concept of privacy for far too long. "Nobody can define it well, and there's a great struggle over articulating why protecting privacy is important," he says. It's not just personal privacy at stake here, though loss of privacy should not be a necessary price for being online, he adds.

Some of these issues are ticking time bombs. For instance, Roy says public servants are using personal e-mail addresses for official work. "They probably feel 'safer' on a service other than the official ones. This could raise data ownership and information-sharing problems in the future," he says. The widespread use of personal IDs, whether in government or elsewhere, also points to lax security preparedness.

In any case, many private e-mail providers will have to reveal all if asked to. Vinay Goel, head of products, Google India, explains, "We are very reluctant to give (private) information of subscribers out, unless the law requires us to do so. Google works with governments in respective countries and follows the law of the land." In the past, Google has been controversially flexible, censoring search results in China in order to gain access to the giant market.

India, which isn't known to protect privacy with a heavy hand, could have a bigger situation on its hands considering the spectacular failure in controlling spam or unwanted telemarketing calls. The good news is that unprecedented access usually leads to stronger restrictions. "The trouble is, many of them don't work," warns Ramasubramanian.

That said, the laws, and even some favourable court decisions, go largely unnoticed. Take, for instance, an SC ruling that people retain an expectation of privacy even when they share information with others. This went largely unnoticed outside interested online networks, as individual Net users do precious little in being vigilant. This, say experts, is something to watch out for. Mostly, people willingly divulge more information about themselves than they should, agrees Google's Rao.

There is another reason why privacy is at risk. Ironically, strict law enforcement demands require people to give away information that even the online companies do not ask for. "I would not say that people fully understand the (privacy) options available to them. Nor do many understand the implications of sharing more information than is really necessary. But law enforcement worldwide has imposed stricter and stricter information-gathering roles on Internet companies," says Subho Ray, who heads the industry grouping Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI).

In the US, for instance, there is a sense of fatigue with social networking sites and the addition of new users has plateaued. While that's far from the scene in India, it's an indication of things to come. Perhaps the interest in social networking will indeed ebb, solving these parts of the privacy puzzle. But the Internet isn't going away anywhere. The best recourse, as always, is being aware of the risks and taking protective steps like actually reading—and enforcing—privacy options. That will be a wise investment, believe me.


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