The Loss of Online
Iris C F Gomes
The internet has the power of the Big Brother of George Orwell’s 1984. What was once predicted to happen twenty years ago has already become a reality in the present day and age. ‘We always thought it would be far off, but we are being surveyed right now,’ says Baishampayan Ghose, the co-founder and CTO (Chief Technology Officer) at Helpshift, a company that offers web and mobile customer service software. He goes as BeeGee and has taken it upon himself to create awareness about the perils of the internet and how we can safeguard our anonymity.
Anonymity is important to avoid providing an Achilles’ heel that can be wounded. The internet, however, preys on our vulnerability by placing us at the whim of government agency scrutiny, and much darker, predatory forces. At its least dangerous position, the internet subjects us to targeted advertising.
Whenever we like a post or article it is carefully monitored, along with our internet searches and so on, and information connected with our online actions is stored. Google, for one, has a database of who you email, who you chat to, etc. Facebook, in fact, is well known for having the most finely tuned advertising targeting system and has the largest advertisements network because of the extent of information it can gather about an individual based on his or her activity and profile.
Through Snowden we know that various internet firms such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc were being used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) for mass surveillance. There is a regular undermining of technology with the disallowing of encryption. This means the government can tap into your communication without your knowledge or permission.
BeeGee says, ‘How do you defend yourself then? How do I remain the master of my universe, determining who I talk to and what I talk? We cannot keep secrets because the powers that be can gain access to them. A good example is Udta Punjab and the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification). Where is the freedom with people not being allowed to talk about it online? So how do you share information online securely with freedom?’ There are ways of tracking down people even if they use multiple or fake accounts. Besides, Facebook has a strict policy on maintaining an authentic account.
Your first line of defence is arming yourself with knowledge and an understanding of what the internet is all about. It is essential to learn how to use the tools of technology and choose alternative ways of communicating and sharing information. ‘If we don’t understand technology, instead of us becoming its master, it will become our master!’ says BeeGee. One obstacle towards using technology is that a lot of it is not user friendly. Though many platforms have improved to make security usage more accessible, much more work needs to be done in the area. Not being technology savvy can be a huge damper to progress, as Glenn Greenwald discovered when he was unable to access the PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encrypted communication from Edward Snowden. It was only after Greenwald installed the appropriate software and educated himself in the ins and outs of encrypted emails that he was able to produce his benchmark journalistic piece.
BeeGee recommends the use of open source systems and software, calling proprietary software untrustworthy. The most precarious operating system is Windows, while Linux operating system is supposed to be one of the best and is open source. Mac OS is somewhere in between the two but more reliable than Microsoft Windows. It is far more difficult to write malware for Linux or Mac as compared to Microsoft Windows, which has an extremely weak OS. The weakness may be inherent or deliberate. There is also the fact that Windows is more widely used and is therefore more prone to hacker attacks. ‘It is important to invest in better tools and software,’ says BeeGee, a computer science engineer who was in town (at 6 Assagao) to share his knowledge in the least technical manner possible.
Preventing cookies from tracking your activity does help to some extent. Furthermore Google Chrome allows you to go incognito and you can use more than one profile (one for work while staying off Facebook, etc, and one for personal activity). However the loophole that exists here is that agencies can link your online activity if the user visits more than one website on a particular profile.
BeeGee warns that Whatsapp’s purported encryption of messages and calls may be nothing more than a PR exercise. The True Caller app keeps phone numbers it has tracked in its own database, and clicking on links of some of the apps on Facebook, especially the ones that have quizzes that give an estimate of your personality, etc, gives the apps access to your information unless you manually turn off permission. Malware may be attached to some of these apps and websites too.
BeeGee says, ‘There are so many companies that are just content farms and the goal is to convert human beings into ad units. It is sociology and psychology which are being used to generate algorithms to target specific people.’ The only real protection is awareness; educating oneself and sharing the knowledge as much as possible.