With accessing online information and interacting with data becoming a necessity rather than a habit, it has become very easy for thieves to steal your identity and personal information and use it for nefarious purposes. Your digital identity can be misused in a plethora of ways from opening a shady bank account, siphoning off your savings and making chargeable transactions to funding criminal networks. It, therefore, stands to reason that protecting the information that you share on public platforms is of paramount importance.
How personal information is tracked by websites
Most sites that let you access public information or put goods and services up for sale use bits of code, called cookies, to store your web browsing habits. They would typically capture details such as the time you spend on a site, a particular piece of content or product, how much time you spend looking at an advertisement, the sequence of clicks you make before buying an item, site preferences, return visits and so on. More intrusive sites will gather information that you share with social media platforms such as your age, gender, geographical location, the list of sites that you have bookmarked on your internet browser, the list of sites you have already visited in a single session and so on. Significantly, some sites will also save information such as your debit or credit card number, ostensibly for the purposes of saving you the effort of typing this data repeatedly every time you make a purchase. Other sites will attempt to bait you towards products that their sponsors are trying to sell by identifying patterns of online behavior with known psychological profiles.
The perils of online activity
Marketing on the net has become considerably more subtle, with few organizations now directly engaging you on calls or flooding your message inbox with spam. Sellers do not make random target lists anymore. With the advent of internet mobility and smart devices measuring everything from your heart rate and blood pressure to your movements and bank balance, privacy would seem to have become obsolete. There is one more way in which organizations are tracking and evaluating your behavior. More and more employers are profiling your digital footprint with predictive models that tell them whether you will be a safe investment or not. Governments can trace your social media activity to decide whether you are for or against certain policy initiatives. More sinister is the fact that you can be manipulated based on tried and tested techniques to feed your hidden biases and engage your personal time with debates and activities that put a shadow on real issues that affect you.
There are frightening possibilities and parallels, here, with fiction from the 1930s and 1940s on the lines of Orwells ‘1984' or Huxley's ‘Brave New World'. Statistically speaking, a large number of individuals can be controlled unconsciously by overarching systems to bring about an all-pervading perverse form of social engineering that upholds the position of those in authority and discourages or even punishes forms of behavior it sees as disruptive to the status quo.
Pervasive and Intrusive Social Media
Facebook is a well known social media platform that is known to be excessively intrusive. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, was recently asked to present himself for questioning before the US Congress and the European Parliament. Zuckerberg inadvertently admitted that Facebook gathers extensive information about its users and also those who visit their platform without becoming subscribers themselves.
Democracy and the internet
While radio and TV have been subject to heavy regulation, the internet is still a minefield of unregulated activity. Even mobile apps entice you to give up personal information with the threat of you not being able to use its functionalities unless you share. The former may be an arena of debate with many users observing that the freedom of expression found on the internet is what makes it the last vestige of democratic articulation. But the more vivid your statements, the more notice you attract from the powers that be. Then there is the question of internet trolls backed by the latter who fully comprehend the power of anonymity and are yet another manifestation of the violence associated with anarchy.
How to minimize your digital footprint
An increasing number of young people are taking to the internet as a dint of habit. They rely on it to help them with their studies, news and random trivia and even to make friends. The ubiquity of cloud servers has meant that people upload their videos, images and personal documents without thinking about who or which entities can access this information. So, digital footprints left by them can be very wide. Fortunately, there are tools available that help you manage the quantity and type of information you share online. Digital information is often highly moldable. This means that the information that you share online can be tweaked.
Most users forget to use Privacy setting on their browser. It may be convenient but not practical to not delete cookies and browsing history after every session. You can use ‘Ad blockers' to bar intrusive scripts. It will take some effort and engagement to check your Google privacy settings, Linkedin, Yahoo, Facebook and other email and social data settings to ‘uncheck' the options that legally permit these portals to save your browsing habits. Take no heed of how much they dress up these activities with attractive words. Google will typically track every search and keywords you type in or speak at your microphone, especially if you're logged in. Googling yourself by name will tell you part of the results that are public information against your name. Use secondary emails to subscribe to intrusive platforms or apps. Never save passwords on your computer or smartphone. These are paltry measures compared to the number of ways in which your digital footprint is traced. But it's a step in the right direction to ensuring a safe, healthy and private future.
The writer is Regional Director, CompTIA India. Views are personal.