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The cost of free social networking; putting privacy in jeopardy

Namit Hans | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:23 IST

In the novel 1984, George Orwell envisaged a situation where people living in 'Oceania' were constantly observed by the authorities with the use of technology. This constant surveillance allowed the government to control even the thoughts of the people.

That was in a book written in 1949. These days however, Orwell's imagined world seems to be our real world, at least for the more than a third of the world's population that is dependent on the internet for its everyday activities.

Convenience at your fingertips

Social media has been lauded as a catalyst in bringing the world together. We can interact with any person around the globe, share ideas and trends and learn about each other's cultures. There is also an enormous amount of information readily available on the internet because of giants like Google which assimilate all the information in the World Wide Web (www) and then make it easy to search for a particular website.

Ecommerce websites that encourage us to shop online have also grown in the last few years, especially in India. There are websites to watch movies and videos, share photos, play games and anything else you can think of. Most of these websites have one thing in common: they provide their services absolutely free.

How? If the service providers are not charging their customers, then what is their source of profits? Advertising is a good answer. These websites sell space on their pages for companies to advertise. But advertising is not the complete answer. Websites that offer their services free all acquire something valuable from you: your personal data.

Nothing comes free

Whenever you create an account with a website, you are asked to accept a privacy policy. Chances are, like the majority of people, you never read this policy. But this privacy policy enables the websites to use your personal data in such a way that they can observe your behaviour and then use it to moderate the product advertisements you receive.

For instance, Google's current privacy policy states, "Our automated systems analyse your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection."

This clearly shows that Google is scanning your personal emails for its own benefit and you have given them permission to do so without even knowing about it.

You must have noticed that whenever you look for a product online, whether it's an airline ticket or a mobile phone, you start receiving advertisements for similar products on your Facebook profile. This is how these websites persuade us into buying a particular product from a particular seller. This means that Facebook tracks your personal information like your friends, hobbies, what you like or dislike and where you stay, which enables it to sell targeted advertising. Suppose that you post a status update on your profile about your weight problem, send an email to a friend on the same topic, or look for weight reduction measures on the internet. This information is collected by the websites and then sold to a local gym or slimming club which can put up its ad on your Facebook page or send you emails.

Data never dies

The story now gets darker. Even if you choose to delete your personal information from the internet, it remains with the websites in their backup systems - with your own consent. "After you delete information from our services, we may not immediately delete residual copies from our active servers and may not remove information from our backup systems", states Google in its privacy policy.

It is estimated that there are more than 213 million internet users in India, out of which more than 95 million use Facebook. Also, more than 20 million people use Twitter. This makes India the second largest market in the world for these internet giants at a time when only 20% of the total population of India has access to the internet. As the economy grows, more and more people are getting on the internet, making India a massive potential market for the future.

However, this also means that a large proportion of the Indian population will be sharing its personal information, known as 'Big Data', with service providers who have their servers located in countries outside India, especially the United States.

S N Singh, a Delhi University Professor, had filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court amid reports of US cyber intelligence agency units snooping on worldwide secret data. In a newspaper interview, he claimed that, "As per reports, nine US-based internet companies operating in India through agreements signed with Indian users shared 6.3 billion [pieces of] information/data with the National Security Agency of the US without the express consent of the user."

There were also reports about how Xiaomi was sending the information of its phone users to the Chinese government. However, the company later denied the allegations. The situation is now so serious that the Indian government, in 2013, barred politicians from using Gmail for official business conversations. The decision was taken after a series of revelations by whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

According to reports by a foreign website run by a non-profit organisation called TV-Novosti, Twitter had sold its archive of all the tweets to a company named Datashift. The company planned to sell the archives to anyone who wanted to use them for marketing purposes. Clearly any sort of information which we provide to these websites can be misused.

The government knows what you think

The documentary terms and conditions may apply, released in 2013, revealed some startling facts about how governments and corporations use the information provided by people whenever they use a website. It gives a detailed picture of how data is collected by these sites and about the loopholes in their privacy policies.

Showing various real life examples where governments and corporations used this information to act against individuals, the documentary highlights the threats faced by internet users in today's world.

Although the film focused mainly on examples in the US and UK, the situation is equally serious in India. Our government was among the five governments in the world which requested Google for data of its users.

According to the government request report by Facebook, the Indian government made a total of 5,473 requests for information about 7,281 users for the period of July 2014-December 2014. Similarly, the Google transparency report shows 3,112 requests from India about 4,684 users during the same period. In both the lists, India is second only to the United States of America.

Even though it is important for the government to gather this information for help avoid criminal activity and provocative content, India has no concrete cyber laws in India which deal with the issue of privacy. Requests are often made to track a person who has made a negative comment about a political party or an important leader.

In some instances, state governments arrested people who criticised them on social networks. While section 66A has now been repealed by the apex court, does that mean government surveillance of internet users has been dealt with?

"Information we receive about you, including financial transaction data related to purchases made with Facebook, may be accessed, processed and retained for an extended period of time when it is the subject of a legal request or obligation, governmental investigation, or investigations concerning possible violations of our terms or policies, or otherwise to prevent harm. We also may retain information from accounts disabled for violations of our terms for at least a year to prevent repeat abuse or other violations of our terms", states Facebook in its privacy policy.

Whenever you click on a website, it starts collecting your data within seconds, using advanced mechanisms and session cookies. Information such as your IP address, location, phone number, device configuration etc. can be collected and used for different purposes.

So when you think you are getting comfort and free services, think again. The cost of free online services is much higher.

First published: 24 July 2015, 1:43 IST
Namit Hans @HansNamit

Namit works as a sub-editor at the Speed News desk. He is an economics graduate who stumbled into social work after college. His interest in social issues and desire to write sensitising stories led him to journalism. In his free time, he mostly reads about religion and mythology.