Advait Author of Everyday Cybersecurity, a blog aimed at creating awareness about Security and Privacy.

Privacy on the internet

The recent update to WhatsApp’s privacy policy has created quite a buzz in the news and on social media. Chances are that you have already come across several articles suggesting how you should uninstall WhatsApp and ask your friends and family to do the same. Rest assured I am not here to give you another one of “delete all social media because it’s bad” advice. But the question then becomes- what was so special about the privacy policy update that seem to have sparked such a debate? Nothing much, to be honest. The policy change suggests that if you use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and if those businesses let facebook manage their conversations, your chat with the businesses will be shared with Facebook. Your chats with your friends and family are not and will not be shared. Facebook will still not be able to read your chats with them. So why such a huge outcry you may ask? I am not sure I have a good answer to that.

The one positive side effect of this discussion is that we have a large number of people finally talking about Privacy! Normally when I talk to people about this subject, I get responses ranging from “all these companies have my data already, if they get a little more then what’s the big deal” to “I have nothing to hide so I don’t care about privacy”. To me these are extremely superficial arguments and miss the essence of the whole privacy debate.

The issue with handing out your data is not about whether you have anything to hide but whether you have control over how your data is being used.

So this is a great opportunity for us to take a closer look at what’s happening with our data and how does it affect us.

Let’s consider a scenario, most of you have Facebook accounts and have shared several details about yourself with your friends (and in turn with Facebook). There are details as trivial as what’s your favourite ice cream flavour to what you might consider somewhat private details (like your phone number,email address or date of birth/age). How does facebook make money off of these? They let advertisers target you with ads based on the data you have provided and get money from the advertisers in return. So what’s the problem here? The problem is that Facebook doesn’t care about these advertisers’ intentions. Some of them are not simply trying to sell you things but trying to manipulate you by showing content that you are most likely to click on. They do so based on all kinds of data that YOU have willingly provided. This kind of manipulation is so subtle that you barely notice it and you keep consuming the content mindlessly. And that’s what they want, they want your attention and more of your data so that they can keep making more money off of it.

But privacy is not just about the data you share on social media either. It is important to be mindful of how and what you choose to share about yourself anywhere on or off the internet. There are specialized data brokers that collect enormous amount of information on each one of us and then sell it for a huge profit. The most important thing to note here is that not all buyers of this kind of data have our best intentions in mind. The same data that you gave out because “who cares if they get a little more data” is now helping someone create a fake identity. All of this is not just fear mongering either, these are very real threats to our digital identities that are often difficult to realize. To summarize, privacy is not just about the data that you give out, it is equally about how the data that you have given out is being managed and used.

So what is the solution to all of this? Should we all just quit everything and go back to the stone age? No, that’s certainly not the answer to our privacy problem. There are some very easy things we can all do and the first and foremost being

Stop and think before you share anything on or off social media

Think about who are you sharing it with and what information are you sharing. Is this something that really the entire world needs to see? Or is it possible to share with a limited audience? If you are sharing potentially sensitive information, try to find out what is the best way to share such information.

Check the app permissions on your phone. You can find it under Settings > App permissions on most Android phones

What apps do you have installed on your phone and what data are they accessing? Does that new game you installed really need permission to access all the photos on your phone?

Many people use Facebook or Google sign in to log into third party sites. While doing so all your public information on Facebook or Google is typically shared with the third party. Be careful about what is being shared and decide whether that’s the best option

There are many more highly technical solutions that we can leverage to protect our privacy online and I highly encourage you to consider those if you are a power user. These are some super simple tips that we all can follow and hopefully this piece on privacy helps everyday users understand the issues involved a little better. If you enjoyed reading this post, do share it with your friends and family and help them make better security & privacy decisions in their daily lives!