Privacy in Orkut: A hopeless story

by Debarati Halder*


Dear readers, do you know me? Well, sure at least 50 % of the readers do know me , my job profile, my family , my past relationships, my likes and dislikes and even what is there in my bed room. How? Become an Orkut member and you would no longer stay a ‘private person”.

Unfortunately most users of social networks do not know that they do have a right to protect their privacy in the web world. I am a proud member of Orkut, a hugely popular social website which made an introvert like me to have lots of friends, a pretty regular social gathering with my friends in the net via different communities; many of them have become my intimate chatting friends too. But except a few I had never met any of my friends, because they are all “second identities” known to me and to their million net friends via Orkut profile only. One fine morning when I discovered even my Orkut profile had also received some nasty scraps from my “ghost profile” only , I felt an immense urge to do a little research with my friends about their experience . It was a traumatic experience for me to see so many innocent victims at one time.

What is our privacy in the Orkut ?

Every social network has to constitute a set of rules regarding privacy of the users. Orkut is no exception. When one enters Orkut to create a profile he has to sign an agreement with the website regarding the rules and policies. Let us check some of the very use full and carefully drafted privacy policies of the orkut:

" The Google Privacy Policy describes how we treat personal information when you use Google's products and services, including information provided when you use orkut. In addition, the following describes our additional privacy practices that are specific to orkut. If you are using Google Talk in conjunction with orkut, please refer to the Google Talk Privacy Notice for information about our privacy practices that are specific to Talk.

  • As an orkut member, you can create a profile or orkut community that includes personal information, such as your gender, age, occupation, hobbies, and interests, plus other content, such as photos. This information may be accessed and viewed by other orkut members, as determined by your privacy settings.
  • When you invite new members into your network or send messages through orkut, we collect and maintain information associated with those messages, including email addresses and content.
  • When you send and receive SMS messages to or from the orkut website, we collect and maintain information associated with those messages, such as the phone number, the wireless carrier associated with the phone number, the content of the message, and the date and time of the transaction.
  • Google maintains and processes your personal information and content of your communications in order to provide your orkut account, access to that account, and use of orkut services, in addition to the purposes described in the Google Privacy Policy. Your profile information is displayed according to the preferences you set in your account.
  • When you send and receive SMS messages to or from the orkut website, we use the data we collect to operate, develop and improve our services. Our third party providers also may collect data about your SMS usage in order to provide the service. In addition, your wireless carrier collects data about your SMS usage. Their practices are governed by their own privacy policies.
  • Orkut allows third-party developers to upload applications to the orkut application directory. You may choose to use an application by adding it to your profile. If you add an application to your profile, the application may collect information from your profile or other information about your activities on orkut, and share that information with others. Please see our Terms of Use of Applications for details about data sharing when you add an application.
  • When one of your orkut friends adds an application to their profile page, your public profile name, profile URL and profile photo will be shared with the developer of the application and with other users and viewers of the application, even if you have not added that application to your profile. "

The column of "your choices" is particularly noteworthy as to how our privacy could be protected by ourselves.

Your choices

  • Google provides a number of tools to restrict who can view your profile and other personal information. When you create your profile, look for the "golden key" icon, which allows you to limit viewing certain information to yourself, your friends, friends of friends, or to make the information available to all orkut members.
  • You can update your profile information at any time by clicking on the "edit" button in your profile setting.
  • Messages you receive from orkut can be sent to your primary email address or orkut inbox, depending on the preferences you choose in the "my settings" page.
  • You can terminate your account at any time. To learn how, click here. If you terminate your account, your profile, including any messages in your inbox, will be removed from the site and deleted from orkut servers. Because of the way we maintain this service such deletion may not be immediate, and residual copies of your profile information may remain on backup media.”

Finally orkut authorities announce “Google adheres to the US Safe Harbor privacy principles. For more information about the Safe Harbor framework or our registration, see the Department of Commerce's web site.”

To be precise, any Orkut member can create a profile, socialize with other Orkut members, join various “communities” and protect his or her profile by restricting the unwanted viewers. The safety column of the Orkut again reiterates similar tips, regulations and guidelines and gives some strong notes as to how an account may be permanently deleted. This column in one single line mentions that orkut users have to be 18 years old and any profile found to be owned by children below 18 would be deleted immediately. As an orkut member you can even create communities and such communities would also be liable to be deleted if some objectionable article is found in it. GOOD ENOUGH. But does it really protect our privacy? Let us check.

What is our legal right to protect privacy?
Under Art 21 of the Indian constitution we have a beautiful right to “life and liberty”. After many experiences by eminent jurists it was established that this essential right do extend to protect our privacy too ( Kharak Singh vs State of UP. AIR 1963 SC 1295). While this case talked about a convict who was constantly watched upon and felt his private life has become miserable, our laws also protect our privacy in some other ways. Defamation or ruining a person’s character in front of third persons either by verbal words or by written letters, pictures etc is a criminal offence under the Indian Penal Code. Sec 501 of the IPC prescribes severe punishments for such actions. The Indian Information Technology Act 2000 also establishes several provisions to protect our privacy online. Chapter XI declares tampering with computer source documents (sec 65), hacking with computer system (sec 66) , publication of obscene and pornographic material (sec 67)and breach of confidentiality and privacy (sec 72) as offences. Unfortunately the constitutional right of protection of privacy has not been established in any of the defamation related cases of the Information technology. But I strongly feel there is a good ground to drag this very right to crimes related to data protection.

How our privacy is affected in orkut?
In spite of so many existing legal provisions to protect our privacy in the popular social network there are thousands of crimes happening all most every day which shatter our online privacy. We can divide these crimes in three groups, (i) crimes on the individual profile owner, (ii) crimes on the individual, (iii) crimes on the community created by individual profile owner. These crimes are as follows:

  • Under the first group comes hacking, morphing the snapshots which Orkut allows users to put in their album, online defamation, online pornography with the personal photographs of the Orkut users, unnecessary harassing the profile owner with request to accept the anonymous friendship and if the profile owner rejects such offer , sending obscene messages to his or her friends as a revengeful act, posting private pictures of the profile owner to one’s own album without the owner’s permission.
  • Under the second group comes mocking, teasing, defaming or bullying a particular person by either individual profile owner or a group of pranksters. This kind of crime slightly differs from the first group of crime in the sense that the victim may or may not have an Orkut profile , but the perpetrator is an owner of the orkut profile.
  • The third group of crimes happens to particular communities which are created by individual profile owners. Such popular crimes are hacking the community, becoming the member in a fictitious name and then posting obscene messages in the community page, attacking other innocent community members etc.

Unfortunately except one or two incidents, almost all of these incidences go unnoticed even by the profile owners who are victims as well as the Orkut authorities.

Awareness among common Orkut users
It is unfortunate that the common orkut users enjoy the network without even knowing their rights. Most of them sign in without even going through the safety policy or privacy policies. As a result members mostly women, become innocent victims. Their “private life” becomes very much public. I have a strong doubt whether the website authorities themselves check the age of the profile owners. Many under 18 children enjoy penetrating the privacy of adult Orkut members in fake names, they even go on ransacking (using Orkut) one’s good name and good will . When out of curiosity I checked with my Orkut friends about their awareness regarding net privacy, I got most shocking answers. Many of them have been victims of the crimes above mentioned. One had her cloned profile made by some one which fooled all most all her friends, some had found their pictures in other known / unknown profiles without their permission, some were shocked to see their most favorite photograph used as a pornographic object. All most all of them had received some harassing messages at one point of time. None of them were happy with Orkut privacy policies but are happy members of orkut as they got to know their old as well as new friends through this social net work. Most of them are willing to report to the authority “if any abuse happens”, but don’t know that all ready they have been abused .Except one, all most no one knows privacy in the net could also be a constitutional right.

When I checked with community owners, the answers were quite the same. All most all of them were protecting their community from all types of invaders, but were not very happy with the privacy policies. Some had seen some fake profiles in their community even after careful scrutiny and before such profile could be restricted, it had already damaged other community member’s reputation.

What do we learn from this?
There are many laws to protect us, but we become victims of circumstances due to our unawareness and negligence .It is not necessary to become a lawyer to know your rights, but it is very much essential to read the policy guidelines, rules and regulations before committing in any networks. It is an undoubted fact that a hugely popular social network like Orkut has hopelessly failed to protect its users’ privacy due to poor drafting of the policy guidelines. Neither our Information technology law is very strong to deal with brilliant criminals. But it becomes our duty to learn the follies and spread awareness among our fellow “netizens”. Until and unless the victims come up and report the abuse, their private life will allways be dragged in the limelight to make fun of them, irritate them and finally traumatize them. There are umpteen numbers of researches going on in India as well as worldwide by institutions as well as private researchers to develop the IT laws to protect one’s privacy, identity and good will. May be within a year or two India will see a very strong IT Act which will be most talked about in the world of Information technology laws. But I sincerely request all the readers, Orkut users and members of other social networks to know your right. Once people know how to protect their privacy in the net, the rate of crime affecting privacy will automatically reduce.

* Debarati Halder is an advocate and presently engaged as a research assistant in an International project on cyber bullying among school children in the Department of Criminology, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, India

** The author acknowledges the active participation of her Orkut friends belonging to popular Orkut communities such as “ Banglar Bodhu” , “Dhonyi Meye”, “Addabaaj Bangali” in writing this article.

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