Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Why you should watch what you say online

It’s more than your boss finding out that... .’s now common knowledge that people can get fired for what they post on Facebook: What you post can be used as evidence against you.
It doesn’t happen in India to the extent that it happens in, say, America. But it makes us look at the possibilities and the precautions. Why exactly should you bother about what you say, post, or upload online – whether words, quoted messages, video, or audio?
Here are three reasons, in a good amount of detail. (If you're fully aware of all this, you’re paranoid… and only the paranoid survive!

#1: The past backfires.
Online digital records are forever. Even when a privacy policy says you can erase the digital past, the small print will say that the records remain for a few months. In some cases they just won’t get deleted.
Try something silly: Post something on Yahoo Answers. In a couple of months, your Question and/or Answer will be pasted, out of context, on a hundred sites -- with your username, and with no possibility of your deleting your name from those hundred sites.

#2: You think you can use different usernames?
You can’t. A friend of mine called, say, “manmohan123,” wanted to vanish from the Internet in 2009 for reasons only he knows. Here’s all I did to trace him: I googled “manmohan123,” along with a few words he said online. The results showed similar nicknames, along with what was said. From the language usage, I could see that my friend was now calling himself “mnmhn13” (as an imaginary example). I’ve been following his Twitter feeds ever since, knowing who he is… and he thinks he’s incognito!
(Or maybe he followed my tracing... but that becomes too complex.)
It took me no knowledge and no time to find my friend who tried to become anonymous.

Many people believe that simply by having different usernames, your persona as, say, an online retailer will be separate from your persona as a literary critic. That doesn’t cut it.
But your online comments, posts, and shared photos are under different usernames. Right?
No, really. Have you tried registering two Google accounts in a day? Within an hour?
It all gets linked. If someone wants to find out who’s who, they can. The clear message is, “we’re watching you.”

#3: You can get fired.
You’ve most probably read stories about people who have gotten fired for posting something to Facebook. Here’s a short page that lists numerous bad things that have happened to good people. The article gets interesting close to the end, from where I quote: “Don’t think employers aren’t looking at this information. They are, they are using it to make decisions, and more and more will be using it in the future.”

There you go: I’ve said all this on Techtree, and you know how long it’s going to be there on some hard disk or the other: For the foreseeable future. Even if I’d been using a nickname, it can be traced (by anyone who wants to do it, not necessarily an “evil hacker”) to who I am and where I live.
Is that paranoia? Well, this writer was once almost barred from an education programme because his official Statement of Purpose was very different from what his blog said about him. (That was in the early years of the Internet; you can imagine what’s possible now.)
There are a few simple steps to avoid bad situations: First, don’t be evil. (That used to be Google’s thing.) Second, don’t post or share stuff you might regret later, neither stuff that contradicts what you want your online persona to be. Third, and very important: Don’t put up true but negative details of your personal life – for example, a diabetic condition.
Last but not least, segregate to the extent possible: Let your mother see what she should, and let your girlfriend read what she should – with different accounts and usernames.
But I did say that different usernames won’t help...?  Yes, there are plenty of tricks and getarounds.



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