The privacy puzzle

Written by  Aritra Bhattacharya

In low-income, resource-poor neighbourhoods where mobile phones and other internet-linked devices are shared and unfamiliarity with the English language and online protocols forces users to get local intermediaries to set up their email and FB accounts, privacy becomes a dodgy and complex issue

In one sweep, Satish B lost all his friends from the neighbourhood. The issue was complex, blurring the lines between private and public. The 19-year-old boy, a class 11 student residing in a low-income settlement near Sakal Nagar in Pune's Aundh area, had uploaded pictures of himself and his girlfriend on Facebook as part of a private album. Some of these pictures, however, found their way onto his friends’ timelines, and that is when trouble began.

Satish (names changed to protect identities) generally accesses the internet from his friends’ mobile phones, since he cannot afford a smartphone himself. He had planned to buy a Micromax handset with money that he’d expected to make working as a delivery boy for a leading pizza chain. But that was not to be: the student and part-time DJ found the work too tiring and tedious, and gave up after a month or so.

Today, he is often faced with barbs from friends regarding the pictures that went public. Rohan, a friend from school who came to visit Satish one evening when this researcher was around, says, “He uploads pictures with his girlfriend on Facebook. This is not good. It damages the reputation of the girl (ladki ki waat lagata hai).”

Satish did not respond to this allegation, and instead indulged in light-hearted banter with Rohan. The comment, however, left an impression on him, and as soon as Rohan left, he jumped to his own defence.  

“The pictures he was referring to were part of my private album on Facebook. They were not visible to anyone but me. I use my friends’ mobiles to access Facebook (Facebook karna, in colloquial terms), and I think I may have forgotten to log out from my account on one such occasion. I am certain that someone else who accessed my Facebook account posted the pictures in the public arena,” he says, clearly pained at the personal pictures becoming public.

He is concerned about the reputation of the girl, as well as the babbling of tongues in the neighbourhood over their relationship. “I myself had uploaded our picture as my profile photo on Facebook. But I had taken care to ensure that her face was not visible in it. I had cropped the picture accordingly,” he notes, adding that when he raised the issue with his friends from the neighbourhood, they chose to snap ties with him.

This incident is crucial in understanding how fraught the relationship between the public and private is, especially for those accessing the internet in low-income settlements. Satish isn’t alone in using his friends’ phones to access the internet; fieldwork has shown how numerous others, especially those who do not have access to money and resources, often rely on others’ phones to fuel their online forays. In this, what is private for one person (the friend using the phone) becomes accessible to the other (the owner of the phone), and the protection of privacy becomes a dodgy affair: privacy can be breached for ‘fun’, revenge or fuel in the game of one-upmanship.

Intermediary of another kind

In technical terms, Facebook is an internet intermediary, much like Google, Yahoo and internet service providers. According to the OECD, internet intermediaries can be defined in the following terms: ‘Internet intermediaries bring together or facilitate transactions between third parties on the internet. They give access to, host, transmit and index content, products and services originated by third parties on the internet or provide internet-based services to third parties’(1).

The document, dated 2010, notes that ‘Internet intermediaries’ are mainly from the business sector although there are an increasing number of social platforms like Facebook.

The discussion of internet access in low-income settlements, however, throws up yet another set of intermediaries who lie outside the purview of the above definition. These intermediaries are real people who help others find a toehold in cyberspace, often for a fee. K, from Pune’s Bhosari area, is one such intermediary.

The 17-year-old recently filled up a form to appear for the Class 10 exams under the open school format, since he dropped out of school a couple of years ago. At present, K spends most of his time at his uncle’s mobile repair and downloads shop in the settlement, where he takes the lead role in downloading content from the internet and copying it on to clients’ phones for a fee (varying between Rs 30 and Rs 50).

“I knew nothing about the internet one-and-a-half years ago,” says the lanky youth. “My uncle, who runs the shop, taught me the basics of the internet.”

K has been instrumental in opening Facebook accounts for many in his settlement. These clients are mostly first-timers on the internet, with little or no knowledge of English. They approach K at his shop, armed with a desire to create a Facebook account. K takes their details and keys them in at the necessary points of the Facebook sign-up process. In a few minutes, his clients’ Facebook account is up and active; he then installs the Facebook app on their phones, allowing them to chatter away on the social media platform.

It is unclear how many such users change their account passwords—created by K—in due course, since they lack knowledge of English. K himself recalls how becoming familiar with English was a painful process. “I knew nothing of the language save some words here and there. But over the past months, I have become familiar, thanks to constant surfing on the computer at the shop. I myself have four Facebook accounts, and have now learnt to use English short forms,” he says.

The arrangement that allows K to earn a livelihood also shows how privacy could potentially be compromised: as the creator of clients’ Facebook accounts and passwords, K could, if he wished to, play around with their private data on the network.

It’s all in the memory

The security of data on Facebook, even when it is locked in private albums, is susceptible to surveillance by the companies themselves, as well as the government. That, however, isn’t a spot of bother for the netizens in these areas. In fact, they continue to be unaware of a threat to privacy that lies much closer to their world, physically: the access that mobile phone repairers have to data on memory cards.

Sanjeev is a part-time mobile phone repairer residing in the same settlement as K. He does this job to make some money on the side, over and above his regular income from a job as an Autocad designer in a private firm.

“People come to me because I am good at repairing mobiles, and I charge Rs 100 for a job that would cost at least Rs 300 at a proper shop. I can repair any mobile phone,” he says. Sanjeev learnt the basics of mobile phone repairing while studying at an Industrial Training Institute (ITI) in 2010. Though he dropped out of the course after six months, things he learnt there have helped him open up an alternative line of employment.

Low-cost repair is his forte, but it often comes at a price for clients. “Whenever I have to repair a mobile phone, I tell clients that it cannot happen without the memory card. I tell them I need the memory to check for viruses etc. And they willingly agree to leave the card with me, inside the phone,” he says with gleaming eyes.

“I am interested in finding out what is in people’s memory cards (Mera shaukh hai)…That’s the reason I take memory cards with phones. I browse through the memory cards, and copy whatever interests me. Mostly, it is images, wallpapers and videos. And a lot of porn videos,” he says, perhaps without realising that his act could be described as one of out-and-out voyeurism.

Observation of the goings-on at roadside mobile repair shops shows that clients are generally unsuspecting about the threat to data on their memory cards when they give their device for repair.

There are many mobile phone repairers in low-income settlements who thrive thanks to their low price points. Like Sanjeev, there may be many who are happy to browse through memory cards and copy data they fancy, thereby compromising the privacy of users.

The poor knowledge of English, coupled with a lack of tech-savviness places internet users in low-income settlements in a tight spot as regards privacy and security. For many such internet users, the mobile phone is the only personal gadget they own; it is a means of accessing the aspirational. But as Satish’s story shows, there could be damaging consequences to the compromise on privacy that often mediates their access to the internet.

(1) http://www.oecd.org/internet/ieconomy/44949023.pdf

www.netpehchaan.in, February 2015

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