Tuesday, April 17, 2012

There’s nothing private online

From the password you type to access email, to the texts and photos you put up on social networking sites -- they are all visible to someone other than you. Theoretically, that is. Practically, of course, there are institutionalized safeguards to prevent data from being accessed.

But, how much privacy can Facebook, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft etc ensure? After all, our data are on their server, right? And, for free, in most of cases!

We define privacy differently online. Offline, private means, only I have access to it. But online, we trust the owner of the server where our data is, and we co-opt him into our personal space. This handing over of data to a trusted guardian will become the norm as we move more and more to the cloud.

While we fret about privacy, we have no qualms about proclaiming either to the entire world via Twitter or to our “Friends” via Facebook and similar sites, our location, our travel plans, what articles we read, our political views, our religious faith etc. (By the way, in the days of yore, “Friends” were people whom we knew very closely and whom we trusted. No longer!)

The most we can secure our privacy is to not let our browser know which sites we visited, by using “Incognito window” in Chrome or “Private Browsing” in Internet Explorer and Firefox. But it isn’t as private as one may think -- it only prevents history of websites visited from being saved on the browser, and prevents cookies being placed on the computer. Even with private browsing, service provider can track websites and malicious software can get implanted.

Privacy issue has grown alongside the shift that has taken place in the way we communicate. We have moved from “person(s) to person(s)” communication to putting up data in a central place that is accessible to many people. Now, you don’t send information, instead others access your information. Earlier, email was the way you shared photos. Now, you put them up on a site (cloud), where others view it. The problem here is, not all of us are careful what information should be made accessible to whom; with the result, all info becomes visible to all people!

And people whom you may not even know may get to see the info. For example, if on Facebook I Like a photo put up by SMJ, that photo will reflect on the feed of my friends all of whom may not know who SMJ is. Why should strangers get to see SMJ’s photo, even though SMJ originally made the photo visible only to her friends?

Privacy issues are tricky. If you are too fussy about privacy, never put anything personal online!

(This appeared in the Wireless World column of The Times of India, Bangalore, today)

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