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Updated: October 6, 2010 19:08 IST

Just face it

SRIYA NARAYANAN
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The online world files things away publicly under your name, with a time stamp to boot.
AP The online world files things away publicly under your name, with a time stamp to boot.

How do you watch without being watched on social networking sites? Sriya Narayanan on overcoming problems relating to privacy in the tangled web.

The World Wide Web is an icky place. Unlike the physical universe (that has limited room for garbage), cyberspace keeps track of everything we say and do, simply because it can. The good news is we already know. The bad news is we sometimes forget.

Ever Googled yourself and felt mortified at the report card that showed up in a nanosecond? If yes, the lesson to be learnt is embarrassingly simple — don't sign a petition addressed to Robert Pattinson titled “Puncture my neck and bless me with eternal romance”. And if you must, use a fake name. Despite the Internet's supposed ‘watch without being watched' quality, most websites, particularly the social networking variety, have diabolical ways to track our movements and display them to hundreds of chuckling strangers. Last year, Facebookers were distraught when a pair of binoculars showed up on their friends' profiles. The tell-tale application (called Who's Watching You) listed everyone who had visited their profiles in the recent past and displayed their faces in a giant collage. Even cautious Twitter users who opt for ‘protected updates' can be re-tweeted by their followers to an audience they've never met.

Because of how fast technology evolves, it's impossible to anticipate what virtual skeletons will tumble out of the computer screen. Privacy settings have mind-numbing jargon and when you're trying to instal software in a hurry, the ten-page disclaimer is better left unread. The real problem is how easily the Internet can “pick up” information and store it elsewhere, rendering you powerless. While things can't be unsaid in real life either, the online world files things away publicly under your name, with a time stamp to boot. Once the ‘post' button has been pressed, it's no use deleting the comment, deactivating your account and wiping off your fingerprints from the keyboard with a damp cloth. That random rant written in a fit of boredom is like the great undead that will come to life at every chance. And thanks to the trail of virtual breadcrumbs, anyone can find anyone else. This has mixed results. You might rediscover a childhood companion or find yourself staring at friend requests from the gang who made high school hell.

Internet-enabled reunions inevitably end with the formation or revival of an e-group. If the moderators are not careful, the group ends up with default settings that make emails publicly visible. A conversation thread with mobile numbers, meeting places and other personal details begins, and all it takes is one search for the string to unravel much to the delight of identity thieves and stalkers.

Fix-it technologies are hard to come by. There are dozens of tricks and strategies that need to be learnt, with no guaranteed results. Even an ancient blog post that was purged from the archives long ago could magically reappear in another listing, sprouting sentences that look only vaguely familiar. At times like this, there's not much else to do except sit back and hope that the offending website that someone started in his mother's basement runs out of funding and shuts down.   

DAMAGE CONTROL 101

1. Gmail goggles: Turn on Mail Goggles before heading out for drinks. The feature, which is a hit with party animals, prevents you from sending out reckless declarations of love or hatred. It makes you do some math before allowing you to hit ‘send'. Can't do the math? You'll need to log off and return tomorrow.

2. Message Recall: Some office mail applications have this option but it only works if the message hasn't been read yet and if the recipient lets you recall it.

3. Facebook faux pas: Did your friend upload an unflattering photo of you and ignore requests to delete it? Click on ‘remove tag'. It will still be online but won't show up in your list.

4. No comments: If you made a comment on a public forum and there's no delete option, change your display name so it doesn't show up in search results for your real name.

5, Confidential chat: On Google chat, select “Go off the record” to prevent chats from being saved and reproduced.


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