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Sunday, January 3, 2010


Each time you surf, email or chat, your private information is being accessed without your consent or knowledge-
A few weeks back, Mark Z u cke r b e r g , Fa c e - books founder, made a few changes to the privacy settings in his profile on the social networking site. What he did was fairly simple . Facebook essentially allows its users to chose their level of privacy, by deciding whether they want to restrict access to their friends , friends of friends or everyone . Zuckerberg chose the option everyone , allowing hundreds of people access to his personal information, which was earlier restricted only to his friends.

Nothing wrong with that, one would presume. However, Zuckerbergs move was a precursor to a major policy decision by his company , that was aimed at encouraging its members to share more information,by asking them to review their privacy settings. What Facebook didnt convey was that unless users actively managed their privacy settings themselves, their information about family, relationship, education, work etc, and their posts would be made visible to everyone, by default. Internet observers were soon up in arms, terming it as a ploy to nudge users to share information so that search engines could index more pages from their site.

Although Facebook defended its decision by claiming that it was a step towards empowering its 350 million users , the episode has renewed the larger debate of privacy on the internet. The moot question it has raised is this does the privacy of users get regularly infringed in a medium, whose strongest point, perhaps, is that users can remain fairly anonymous, unless they wish to voluntarily share information about themselves

The answer is a big Yes, says Katitza Rodriguez, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washingtonbased group that focuses public attention on privacy issues. All across the world, privacy infringement is an issue that has assumed alarming proportions. Whether it is through websites, search engines, email or social networking sites, the information of users is being accessed without their consent or even their knowledge.

How does this happen Take search engines, for instance, says Rodriguez. Internet Protocol addresses which identify unique computers are the primary method by which information submitted to search engines is made personally identifiable. Other methods include search query analysis and the use of cookies. The irony is that most users are simply unaware that search engines like Google are collecting their personally identifiable data.

And, how is this information used There are two major threats to privacy today governments seeking greater access to our lives, and companies who wish to commoditize our lives, says Professor Gus Hosein of the London School of Economics. If a countrys government wants to get information about you, they can simply approach Google or Microsoft, and you will never be any the wiser. Similarly, companies want to know what you are doing wherever you are, so that they can sell ads to you.

Why this is worrying is because this also leaves the field open for a lot of potential misuse. As an advanced user of the internet , I still have to rely on blind faith at times to ensure that my data is not being abused. This is not a comforting thought, says Hosein. The excessive collection of personal data by internet companies has also led to the problem of identity theft, especially in the US.

Even in India, where individual privacy rights have never been a major issue, the perception is changing fast.Increased use of internet, growth of e-commerce and e-governance and recent trends like misuse of information by telemarketers is rapidly changing our notion of privacy, says Kamlesh Bajaj of the Data Security Council of India, a Nasscom subsidiary, formed to spread awareness about online privacy and data protection practices in the country.

As awareness about the issue is growing, so is the demand for action. Privacy groups like EPIC have now started putting pressure on internet companies to establish fair information practices which ensure that the information they collect will not be used for secondary purposes without the knowledge and informed consent of the user. They are also encouraging citizens around the world to sign the Madrid Privacy Declaration, which affirms that privacy is a fundamental human right.

With all this happening, users would be hoping that at least in the new decade, they can surf the net, without someone constantly looking over their shoulder.


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