The benefits of unprecedented connectivity come with vulnerability to manipulation and exploitation, as exposed in Facebook's data misuse scandal involving the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
Global Internet users—numbering over four billion in 2018—face illegal data harvesters, identity thieves, privacy violators and varieties of cheats prowling the information pathways we travel daily, the broadband journeys intertwining, interconnecting in the increasing online daily life of the mundane world.
What a world! This global village with happy online “magic” that we take for granted, where oceans are bridged with a mouse click, where more information is created and shared than ever before in history and more work done through intercontinental networking of colleagues unseen in flesh and blood. But this magical wonderland comes with the dark world of ghoulish malwares and virulent virus-conjuring sorcerers, the monster spiders of e-commerce luring unwary victims into perilous parlours, and sometimes, in comeuppance times, the spider getting caught in its own mesh—like Facebook and its recent woes.
Addictive so-called “social media” and dependency on Internet 24/7 were not on the horizon among us pioneering Internet-using journalists when the term “World Wide Web” entered daily usage circa 1994.
Those were days when Mumbai had about three Internet-connected computers, and the word “email” was not yet the oxygen of daily communication across the planet.
Ironically now when the World Wide Web dominates our lives, we do not even need to key in “www” to enter 1.7 billion existing websites (2,738 websites in 1994). But as stakes increase in the Internet El Dorado that churns out billionaires like Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, cheats and their tricks increase.
Facebook's recent troubles came as no surprise, not if you maintain a sneak-cheat list of personally banned websites like I do. European laws demand publishers ask for permission to install cookies, but the slithery sneak-cheats not only sneak in but hide in computers.
They are exposed when I often clear my browser of cookies and site data (In a chrome browser, click on “settings” > “advanced settings” > “privacy” > “content settings” > “Cookies and site data” > “Remove All”).
The cookie box should clear after clicking “Remove All”, except for the browser data. But cookies of cheating websites sneakily linger, like a perverted visitor who does not go when bidden but hides under the bed to spy.
These sneaky cheats store their spyware in text files that I have to find and delete from hard drives, using as search word the name of the sneak website.
This hunt in “Files and Folders” takes time, tests patience and I avoid domains of these sneak cheats. Appropriately, some of them, though not all, have dubious reputations, funding sources or business practices.
My list of sneaks includes Facebook, online retailers like Flipkart and news sites like NDTV that have joined the journalism-ethics murdering hordes of the once credible, now shamefully biased, New York Times, Washington Post and CNN.
So it came as no surprise when David Baser, the product management director of Facebook, publicly admitted Facebook tracks non-users offline. No surprise either if dirtier tricks than cookies stored as hidden text files await exposure.
Yet freedom from sneak-cheats needs realistic acceptance of how private an interconnected world can be. Is our online life in reality only as “private” as talking, working and relaxing in the high street of the global village?
Is online shopping 100 percent safe as buying with cash in the neighborhood store? How many of us bother to even use freely available encryption tools, such as Tor and Tails from Julian Assange's WikiLeaks? Anyway, are online chambers of secrets and whispers through encrypted emails only mirages of privacy?
Not much can be hidden where satellites can beam to the world images of your house through Google Street View (instantstreetview.com), Earthcams (earthcam.com) bring street views of global cities, and the most complex password can be for the determined hacker the “open sesame” of the Arabian Nights tale—with the 21st century Ali Baba and the celebrated thieves only shifting operations online.
Here they lurk and plunder the unwary. Nothing can be hidden; those who experience subtler truths of nature understand that we are never, ever alone.
I find basic rules of life apply online as they do offline. Having little to hide helps beat sneaky online spies, like those using text files to hide in computers. We exorcise the hidden cheats while also exorcising paranoia over privacy that robs enjoying to the fullest the wonder world of the Internet.
The Internet too has its dark side, like other things of life. It makes sense to make best use of the most beneficial technological revolution of our times, while taking precautions to not fall into webs of thieves.
But a beneficial online life needs also avoiding self-created traps of paranoia. The foundations of the Internet are rooted in freedom, and whatever it takes is worth the effort to be free.
Raja Murthy is a senior Mumbai-based journalist.
Copyright: The Statesman/Asia News Network