Imagine someone knowing exactly where you are, where you live, what your routine is, where you will be and then waiting there for a ‘chance encounter’ to happen. This near-horror phenomenon is something Netflix’s new show You delves into. It follows a seemingly charming bookstore manager and his ‘love story’ with an aspiring writer – except he stalks her, breaks into her home, steals her phone and keeps tabs on her location in an attempt to be ‘at the right place at the right time’ and weasel into her life.
The nightmarish experience of the woman he pursues in the series led many users to check their own privacy settings on social media. But several users still have no idea of how much of their information is stored on the cloud and what kind of information they are allowing the applications to access.
How social media uses your data
“There might be much more information about you out there on the Internet than you sign up for. People do not really realise how much of their data is out there. Things are made out to be very opaque, so it is difficult to know who stores how much of your data,” says Anja Kovacs, director at Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project.
Pranesh Prakash, a fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, explains that most websites put the onus of privacy onto the user but recently, there have been some features that social media giants have introduced after privacy concerns were voiced.
“On Twitter, I think you don’t need to use your real name and you do not have to use your location. On Facebook, apart from your name, you can restrict other information to friends only or use the option ‘Only Me’. With these kinds of possibilities existing, one just needs to know how to navigate through these tools,” Pranesh says.
The problem with this, he adds, is that the onus of privacy is put onto the user. “It is a difficult situation for social networks. One of Facebook’s most used feature is the ‘people you may know’ feature. Sometimes, that can go really bad, sometimes it may throw up your ex as a suggestion or let your stalker see your profile or it may allow people who visit a common psychologist to see each other as suggestions without knowing why,” he says.
While it is difficult for social media giants to calibrate such settings, the users have recently been given options to help control what kind of audience sees what information.
After Google Plus was launched, Facebook introduced a feature that allows users to choose who can see their status updates. Pranesh adds that users should make use of such features.
Understanding your data online
Not many users realise that basic information about them can be used against them. Seemingly harmless information like your date of birth, your birthplace or the pages that you follow on social media may contain leads for identity thefts.
“All the information that you put up publicly can be used by police, future employees or even your stalkers as well. For example, your date of birth, which most users add to their social media profiles, is usually used to verify bank accounts. If that is public, anyone can pretend to be you,” says Pranesh.
A way out is to relay this information only to people you trust. Another thing is to remember that on the internet, information received from one website can be used to access information on another website.
“You might upload a picture with your pet and name your pet in that post. However, that name could be the answer to one of the security questions asked on another website. If you use the same email address and username across social media profiles, it is easier to find information about you. Users should be aware that websites can be connected,” Pranesh explains.
Apps and permissions
Another crucial thing to remember is that users must always look into privacy settings of social networks that they use.
When you install new applications on your mobile phones, they often ask for certain permissions – like seeking access to your location – and users usually mechanically click on allow.
Most of these permissions apps request are often based on the type of application – for example, it is natural for Google Maps to ask permission to access your location – and users need to be vigilant if apps ask for absurd permissions.
“I once saw a torchlight app that sought access to my address book. Why would my flashlight need access to my contacts? There are a lot of apps who don't read these permissions. It is quite easy to figure out what kind of permissions an app needs and users need to apply their mind when installing the apps,” Anja adds.
She states that there are a lot of people who do not read through the terms and conditions of a particular website or app or the permissions they seek. And once access is granted, there is no way of taking your data back.
Last year, it was revealed that a Facebook breach had exposed data of 50 million people. Last month, Facebook reported another security breach where nearly 6.8 million users risked their private photos being exposed to third-party apps.
Facebook also found itself refuting serious claims of wrongdoings in giving access to user information to certain device makers, including China-based Huawei, and certain large technology companies and popular apps like Netflix or Spotify.
Anja says users should be more critical of such companies and organisations that store data or sell users' data.
“People feel that things can’t change, but that is because they don't make enough noise. You must ask whether companies can store your data and not just who has what data – ask who can access it,” Anja said. “Think more critically about which companies you trust and why you trust them.”