Madeeha*, a 26-year-old banker, got a nasty shock when she clicked on a mass email to discover it contained pictures of her and her friends at a party.
“Somebody managed to get their hands on private photographs and decided to circulate them,” said Madeeha. The photographs, which included snapshots from a friend’s vacation abroad, had also been posted on YouTube. “The video was eventually removed from YouTube,” says Madeeha. “But the damage had been done. I don’t know who else saw those pictures; they were only meant for close friends.”
Madeeha’s experience caused her to become much more cautious about her privacy online. Her apprehension mirrors concerns that a growing number of people are experiencing about the security of data they choose to post on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter or MySpace, or on blogs.
Of the 50 young professionals questioned by The Express Tribune about their perceptions of security on the internet, 76 per cent said they were less willing to share personal information on sites like Facebook as compared to when they first joined the network. The lesson that many people have learnt the hard way is that personal information, once posted online, is almost impossible to guard.
Although alarm at the privacy policies of giants like Facebook has yet to cause a furore in Pakistan, the issue has received a significant amount of attention in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe. As US-based law professor Jeffrey Rosen wrote in his piece “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” in The New York Times, “The fact that the internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome out chequered pasts.”
The dicey issue of distancing yourself from past mistakes made online, whether the errors in judgment occurred in the form of an angry comment on a YouTube video or an embarrassing photograph on Facebook, is often raised in relation to one’s relationship with an employer.
Our survey revealed that 79 per cent of respondents routinely ran web searches of prospective employers, employees, dates, co-workers or friends.
A similar trend in Germany recently led legislators to approve a draft law which prohibits employers from using social networks to check up on potential employees. Of course, commentators have stressed that it will be extremely difficult to prove that a company has gathered information about an employee from a social networking site — but in theory, anyone found flouting the law could be fined up to $381,000.
According to human resources manager Leon Menezes, the laxity of privacy laws in Pakistan means few checks on the extent to which an organisation could go to dig up dirt on an employee. Menezes said he found it surprising that people were so indiscreet on the web despite this obvious loophole in internet security.
“People need to be careful about what they say online,” said Menezes. He could not comment on whether investigating employees online was common practice in Pakistan, but said he thought it would be a good idea.
Citing the presence of a code of conduct in most large organisations, Menezes said that an employer would be within his or her rights to take action against an employee who was found to be contradicting the company’s policies online.
HR consultant Saira Ahsan Khwaja admitted she hadn’t heard of a case in Pakistan where a company took action against an employee for material he or she posted online, but did say she thought people carefully monitored their activities online to limit any negative fallout.
“People are sensitive to this possibility, so they do take precautions,” she said.
Frequent Facebook-ers couldn’t agree more. Amna*, a research assistant, boasts of stringently limiting people’s access to her Facebook profile. “I have one list for close friends and separate settings for people I meet through work,” she says.
Even so, life isn’t perfect. Amna recently flew into a panic when someone tagged a photograph of hers that had not been intended to be made public. “I kept trying to untag myself but because of some technical glitch, the photo stayed on my profile for a whole 10 minutes,” she said. “I don’t know who saw it.”
Whether people choose to ferociously guard their online privacy out of vanity (“I look fat in that picture, please don’t tag me!”), to circumvent nosy employers (“I don’t want my boss to know I went to the beach yesterday even though I called in sick at work”) or to protect their image in the public eye (case in point: Bilawal Bhutto’s leaked college party pictures), they all face the same dilemna: they are trying to police a domain which is governed by very few rules and laws.
For that reason, perhaps, 76 per cent of those who were asked whether they thought information they had shared on the internet could be used against them at some point in time said ‘Yes’.
Of course, some people do remain unmoved. Ahmad, a student, recently discovered that his photograph was being used by someone else as a profile picture. But he couldn’t care less, and didn’t report the user.
“What’s the worst that could happen?” asked Ahmad.
“It’s only the internet.”
Published in The Express Tribune, September 19th, 2010.