On Online Privacy

Recently, I was interviewed by a publication on the subject of online privacy, who then chose to use only part of the answers they asked of me. As it is my policy in such cases, here is the entire set of answers I gave.

Online Privacy

1. What kind of information about yourself are you involuntarily giving up?

A lot of people have no idea what information they are actually giving up as they use any of these online activities. Browsing (whether from a desktop or from a phone or app) quickly establishes a profile that tells the person who is tracking this data (or has access to it) what your likes and dislikes you have, what kind of person you are, what, where and when you are likely to consider buying something, who the people are whom you influence, and who influence you, etc.

2. What are the implications of giving up so much data without knowing about it?

None of these seem that important to the average user, until you realise that this information can be used to manipulate you or people you are associated with into a purchase or action. And then you realise that this could be costing you, or people you know, real money. At that point it becomes personal.

3. Can this information be misused in any way?

Very much so, and it happens almost every day. While more benign misuses could be a simple manipulation that results in you or someone you know into buying something, it could also be as sinister as using the information to steal you identity and perpetrate crimes in your name. While many people think such a thing won’t happen in India because “we aren’t so advanced”, you will be surprised how many loans, credits and other facilities are illegally availed of here in India every day, using stolen information.

4. Should you really be concerned about the fact that you are being tracked online? Or should you just come to terms with the fact that privacy doesn’t exist anymore?

You should be concerned. Today it may be your money that is at stake, but tomorrow it could be the life of a loved one or a friend that is threatened because of information being used to get to them.

Privacy is something that is your birthright. Every country’s constitution guarantees it, and it is all that stands between you and becoming a meaningless puppet in the hands of powerful information brokers. So you should NEVER come to terms with loss of privacy, and should fight for it.

5. Tips for being safe online

The tips are really the same no matter what medium you use:

  • When asked for information about yourself or someone you know, ask yourself why, and how this information could be used. For example, if someone asks you for your age (or year of birth), is this actually needed? What difference in service could I expect if I state I am 30 instead of my real age?
  • Can you avoid giving that information and still achieve the goal you are seeking? I, for example, use a dedicated email address for each service I sign up for, such as servicename+random_number@my_domainname. eg facebook37582@atulchitnis.net (not an actual address).
  • Never reveal real details about yourself in chat UNLESS you know the person at the other end, and certainly never in a public chat-room where others may be lurking (even the chat service operator).
  • Be aware of the fact that services like Google data-mine ALL data that passes through their services in an attempt to tailor ads that would entice you into clicking/buying. This applies to ANY information, including chatlogs, email, web pages and sites you visit, etc.

6. Anything else that you want to add.

Education begins at home. Before allowing your children online on their own, have a sit down talk with them, and explain the dangers of revealing information about themselves. Make sure that the initial online sessions are supervised, and point out mistakes they make.

Understand that the vast majority of security and privacy breaches happen through social engineering. For example, it could be as simple as someone appealing to your child’s vanity, such as “I bet you are too young to be entrusted with your dad’s credit card number”. You will be surprised how many kids will rush to find out their dad’s credit card details just to prove that they are “grown up”!

If you have any comments, or wish to discuss this post, please do so on Twitter, where I interact under the ID @AtulChitnis