• Mohana Prabhakar

The Emperor’s new clothes

There is this one pair of trainers that has been stalking me online for the past few months. And it doesn’t matter which one of my devices I use to go on the Internet, the shoes follow me everywhere. I did buy the pair finally, but it still shows up with unabashed abandon each time I am online.

Welcome to the new world. There is so much righteous outrage over the fact that our personal information is being peddled by the apps and sites that we frequent. Yes, we may not have known that our information was available to be misused for political campaigns à la Facebook, but we are pretending if we say we didn’t know that privacy is fast becoming a dinosaur.

When an app is telling me it needs access to all my friends and contacts on FB or Snapchat, it should make me pause. I should protest the fact that I am expected to log in with my Gmail or FB id, for example, to get the results of yet another quiz or for an extra life on a game. Obviously, people go ahead and do it anyway, going by the number of requests I have got for giving someone a life on Candy Crush or posts that say, “I am a racoon, what is your spirit animal?”

I can’t log into Adobe Photoshop and pretend to be a National Geographic photographer unless I sign in with my FB or Google account. Needless to say that app is still waiting untouched.

It’s happening more and more that any app you download wants access to everything on your phone or it won’t work. Take Grammarly. It’s a great idea for anyone who writes in English and wants to produce error-free work, and I used the free browser extension enthusiastically on my desktop at work. Write, and then paste your document on the Web and voilà – all silly mistakes are taken care of.

Last weekend, I decided to get it for my iPad as well and downloaded the app. What I didn’t realise is that the privacy settings are very different for the app as compared to the browser version. I couldn’t paste my document without first checking the box that allowed the app access to every written word on my device.

It also mentioned that it would access any private documents that could include bank details, bank statements, and passwords etc, stored on my iPad. Don’t know about you, but I do store passwords in a file as my memory can’t cope with multiple passwords in upper case, lower case, special characters, numbers and so on.

Needless to say, I deleted the app, but this is our present and most certainly, our future.

I understand why Mark Zuckerberg has just had over US$10bn disappear from his fortune on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, but public grandstanding like Elon Musk deleting his FB pages for SpaceX and Tesla is hardly going to make a difference. FB has 2.2bn active monthly users, so obviously it is fulfilling a definite need out there.

Ignoring those who go down the ‘I have nothing to hide, so what’s the problem’ route (they are already beyond help), the point the rest of us need to understand is that as we lose our privacy, we are also losing the ability to make our own choices.

Sure Facebook is the villain of the day but it’s not as if they are the only ones. We get tracked in a million different ways every day and it is our online behaviour, our smartphones and every gadget that we feel we can’t live without that are at the bottom of it.

A simple example would be your mobile phone. When I got a mobile number, I didn’t know I was signing up to have my number offered as a part of promotional sales. For example, between 9.17am and 9.36am every other day, I get a message from a pizza company that I’ve never ordered from and now never will, just on principle. And try unsubscribing from these annoying SMSes and see how successful you are.

Today the default setting is one where you are choosing to be hunted down by every pesky virtual salesman and opting out is never easy because they don’t make it easy. We are offering tons of private information and the Net is

gobbling it all up.

And while, thankfully, we may not be there yet in Muscat, but posting from the airport lounge or offering a route map is a lovely way of telling prospective visitors, including the robbing kind, that you are away from your home. No website, no app to blame there – just yourself.

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