Guest Column

Social Media and the Onslaught of Online Transparency

Sudipta Das, IPS

Addl. SP (Rural), West District



Unlike public institutions and public figures, private individuals have no obligation to be transparent – to share personal information that constitutes the foundation of our modern identity. The standards of self-policing and ethical transparency that translates to greater credibility and reliance in a public body, if applied in toto to an individual, will inspire wide-spread paranoia, if not an outright rejection, based on the upholding of personal privacy. The construct of ‘transparency’, when extended from institutions to individuals, suddenly threatens our innate sense of control, determinism and free will, irrespective of our cultural identities or civilisational moorings. We, instinctively and universally, crave privacy at such moments of powerlessness. In the light of recent debates on privacy vs. transparency, governments need to realize this sense of insecurity of its citizens.

It is quite appropriate for an individual to have multiple identities – personal and professional, online and offline. For example, the information shared with one’s spouse may not be shared with the same person’s children or parents. My close friends naturally know more about a person than my workplace colleagues. Persons who have only corresponded with me over letters or emails may hold their own opinion regarding me. The crux is that all this is quite normal, and definitely not unethical.

The onset of the digital age, with its associated lure of online social media platforms and multimedia instant communication, has opened up avenues of providing a liberating personal experience to its user, irrespective of gender, age, race, social status or nationality. Social media allows people to communicate in previously unimaginable ways. One no longer requires costly PCs or laptops to share comments, emotions, pictures, videos, music, and documents. An inexpensive mobile phone, equipped with camera, apps and affordable Internet data pack, is enough to “socially network” an interested user. The social media space has witnessed a literal democratization due to availability of cheap Internet-ready mobile phones, launch of low-data ‘Lite’ versions of feature-rich websites like Facebook, Wikipedia or YouTube, and facility of vernacular expression. Besides social media, individuals and organizations are also embracing new technologies such as cloud storage to back-up confidential data on the Internet, mainly to reduce on-site storage costs and get distributed ‘anytime-anyplace’ access.

Ironically, the RTI activists in 2005 did not have any plausible hint that their cause would be carried forward so diligently by the explosive popularity of Facebook and YouTube which were publicly launched around 2005-06, coinciding with the enactment of the RTI Act 2005.

      Social media has made our lives transparent to such an extent that some commentators have started disclaiming privacy as no longer being a social norm. When we voluntarily publish information about our habits and relationships online or encourage word-of-mouth appreciation, we are not driven by any urge to be transparent, but by the much fundamental desires of a social animal – to be accepted, recognized and loved. But, we suffer from a false sense of security that, simply because we have used a login and a strong password to access our online profile, our online privacy is assured. We believe that since we have chosen which mobile app to download, it must be good, and that it really needs to collect our personal data to function properly. Or that, since millions of other persons are sharing their personal information, there is no reason to be alarmed about our privacy. This attitude prevails more amongst the younger generations.

It is only when we start receiving targeted online marketing ads, or our profile gets hacked, or we fall prey to identity theft, or we are publicly defamed for some long-forgotten indiscretion, that we become aware of the profound importance of our online privacy. Here, we are helpless because most of the popular social media platforms are controlled by foreign private organizations, mainly US-based, operating under their own set of laws and regulations pertaining to user account privacy. We voice our complaint first to the host website, failing which we may approach the local law enforcement agency, for whom dealing with violations of privacy is not a priority area.

Ironically, law enforcement agencies and their officers, who otherwise claim exemption from transparency laws, are not immune from the risks of unintended leaks. All levels within the police hierarchy are not equally mature with social networking. Sometimes, we inadvertently post pictures of confidential areas of Police Station building (for example, lockup), GPS tag the location of a raid team, upload profile pictures with service weapons, or even tag senior officers without their prior approval. Such personal information may be picked up by criminals to compromise the safety of a duty-bound officer and his family, or publicly highlight few private details to discredit his good work as a professional cop. It is human to be unsuspecting – civilians more than police. And, such misuse of online profile information compromises our trust. Yet, we are reluctant to take preventive steps such as “hardening” our privacy settings or consider deleting our profile, because limiting the information we share results in reduction of the range of feel-good services and self-promotion that we can derive from our online presence.

Instead of being frustrated, we can channelize the same social media to build constructive dialogue on our online privacy rights, and discuss possible architectural changes for better security of our secrets, information and intellectual property, say by placing more control with the user through flexible opt-in/ out models for collection, sharing and use of data. In this way, we can pressurize – and convince – both governments and corporations to adopt a forward-looking view of existing and emerging risks on the topic of transparency. We need to gently nudge the political decision makers who control the funding purse to invest in capacity building to control cyber crimes. Civilized society cannot give up tamely, as it involves the question of shaping rights of future generations.