melange Society

Hush, someone’s listening

Secret and Whisper have brought out the Internet’s most buoyant feature.  

As students at IIM Lucknow, Gaurav Rajan and his friends Sumant Gajbhiye, Ritika Sharma and Lima James used to bounce off each other secrets, ideas and stories about their past with no fear of misunderstanding by each other. Realising that there was a social stigma attached to people who shared their secrets, the four decided to come up with a website and that was how SharingDard was created in 2011.

“We found a market in India and we presented it in the local context,” says Gaurav. Currently, the site has users who post under six categories: ‘jobs and career’, ‘family and social’, ‘love and relationship’, ‘social taboo’, ‘matrimonial search’ and ‘I feel lonely’. In this, women form the majority under the ‘jobs and career’ category , while men, form the majority (60-70 per cent) under love and relationships.

Although SharingDard receives most of its visitors from Mumbai, the site, overall, is predominantly frequented by men (55 percent) and people from the ages of 19 to 38. There is an age limit of 16 years and above but it’s not exceedingly strict. During registration, all that SharingDard asks you for is your username, email, password, birthday, and gender, which according to Gaurav is “not a sophisticated system; it’s all about anonymity. If it’s too strict, people will feel discouraged to join our site.”

However, SharingDard is not the only anonymous platform for people to share brazen confessions, spiteful gossip and suppressed problems. Apps such as Secret, Whisper (popular both abroad and in India), Yik Yak, and Matter, all offer similar functions. The way Secret works is best described as addictive. What the app does is pull contacts from your phone so that you know that the confession you are reading is your friend’s. But here’s the catch: you don’t know which friend it is; so you spend hours wondering.

It’s surprising how many takers these apps have because we’ve come a long way from finding it hard to trust strangers with our fears, hates and opinions; we’re all cloaked comfortably in anonymity. Although you can choose to use your real identity online, like Dr. Mahinder Watsa has on SharingDard (his is a verified account).

These new applications have brought out the Internet’s most buoyant feature: the choice to reveal our deepest and darkest secrets without revealing ourselves. The best part is the lack of accountability.

While the trend is catching on, it’s not exactly new. Remember a time when some of us would have “cool” names on our IMs, AOLs and Yahoo Messengers or frequent chat rooms on the Internet? Those were the precursors to the now-popular anonymous apps and websites. In pop-culture, the fashionable teen-drama series Gossip Girl highlights the use of an anonymous website with the same name.

But how safe are these apps, especially where laws are involved? Gaurav says that their privacy policy has in place strict terms and conditions that will take care of anything that may go wrong, and that the trustworthiness is the same across all social networking sites. He recalls an incident where a user from Pune was contemplating suicide. “Using our pre-paid service Your Candid Friend, we sent psychologists to check on the person. A local NGO in Pune also helped us and together they confronted the person,” Gaurav says.

What happens when a post needs interference from the law; can one ever really conceal their identity? Even with SharingDard’s basic user information, there are a variety of tools and practices with which a person’s whereabouts can be tracked. Even if the person goes to great lengths to protect his/her identity online, the website can still identify the computer by its IP address given by the ISP. Another way is to decode the email and keep track of a person’s activity on SharingDard. The website also lists 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act.

We all build public profiles for ourselves on social networking sites, thereby developing a digital footprint. And after a point, we want our profiles to be squeaky clean. Websites and apps that offer the anonymous feature are therefore a safe option for us; but what about the throwbacks, like cyber-bullying or slander?

These apps have been working to bring down the degree of spite and harassment involved; it’s easier to bully someone when they don’t know who the person on the other end is.

Apart from the usual ‘Remove’, ‘Flag’ or ‘Report’ options, your account can be banned if you overstep. For example, in an investigation or a civil lawsuit on the app Whisper, it reserves the right to disclose everything about the user involved. Secret’s privacy policy is no different.

Like SharingDard, both Secret and Whisper don’t ask for much information during registration, but they can collect user information through the unique ID found in phones (either the IMEI, or the Bluetooth string and so on), IP address, cookies and other data.

While the intention of these apps might be anonymity, they still haven’t figured out their objectives. However, that hasn’t stopped users from spilling their innermost secrets. In a world where privacy is slowly dissolving and where online interactions have more value than those in real life, the thrill of not being identified makes it as safe as it is dangerous.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 10:38:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/the-anonymous-website-or-application-may-not-be-as-harmless-as-it-seems/article6362948.ece

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