I have kept aside 2 other entries to write this one. This one is pretty serious and may be helpful to a lot of people minus the uber tech-minded. I can easily list a dozen who would find this useful. Anyways, never know how many more. This one about is protecting our identity on the net. Writing it in the wake of an incident/conundrum that my friend was caught up in.

A few years ago, identity stealing on the net wasn’t as rampant – at least it was not as devastating as it is now.That statement shouldn’t be misunderstood or undermined – I meant it wasn’t as important because of the purpose and the kind of information that was put up which also has a lot to do with our age. Its a lot different now. Social networks are key in helping us develop contacts over the net, maintain relations with people we can call up every other day or mail lengthy stories – there are many people we would like to keep in touch with, yet this is as direct we can get with them, many like to share their information online – pictures, videos, news etc. Orkut, Facebook, Twitter: how we communicate with others has changed in way we couldn’t imagine. With the ease of keeping all our friends and colleagues updated, comes a huge problem of identity theft. It is not because of ‘hackers’ that it happens – more often due to our mistakes- rather – due to what we overlook.  We tend to overlook the importance of information that we put online – birthdays (coming to US, I realize that birthdays can be ‘confidential’ information.), work place, where we live, phone numbers, sometimes tons of personal pictures left open for the millions of the networks users to see – or will be exaggerating if I say -‘exploit’? My father is an avid user of technology, but has always remain wary of using his credit card on the net. In fact, if I am right he has used it less than 5 times.

Staying off these networks are not really an option for us, these days – at least for those my age – where the entire group of friends are spread around the world – due to work, study – whatever the reason. So how do we use these sensibly and safely? Point is – the framework to protect our identity, atleast within the boundaries of the network, exists. Many aren’t aware, but most aren’t bothered. It is shocking that most don’t take a little time off to secure their profiles on Orkut and Facebook, many aren’t aware of the people following them on Twitter(unless you are a public figure!). Most aren’t aware of how pervasive these platforms are. These have become a part of our lives and it is just as important to be careful using these as we are with our Social Security Numbers or securing our home. These sites are our identity in the virtual universe, though it maybe not be held in a court of law(I am not sure), but it has its impact within the society. Of course, how secure can we keep it, well there are limits.

My friend found out about a fake profile of hers when it popped up in her ‘Suggestions’ list on Facebook. Shocked and Depressed would be an understatement to express the feeling. That fake profile contained every bit of her information that would be usually found on Facebook – work location, city and the display picture. Facebook may – rather should accept our request to ban the profile. But it doesn’t really stop the person from making another profile. It is scary, a purpose unknown – but definitely not in best interests. Its scary especially because anyone can do it and that someone has done it. The latter part gets more emphasis.

It is a Matrix in a way. We are all plugged in. We all have our own ‘digital self’. We are all dependent on it as much as the ‘machines’ are dependent on us to survive – no users, no social networks or many users – more popularity. Get the drift? Similarly, getting ‘killed in the matrix’ can get you ‘killed in the real world’. Though, probably, not literally.

So how? How do we protect our identities from the ‘Agents’?

The most important point is that we need to be aware that we are responsible for our profiles and everything that goes with it. Security of information starts with us.

Next would be to understand the framework – the privacy settings available on sites like Orkut, Facebook & Twitter.

Third, unless you are the kind who wants to make all your information public or treat every ‘friend’ you add, or every (specific case: ) facebook application to be reliable as trustworthy – be careful who gets to know what info about you.

Many of us may think – ‘Yes, we all know this. What is your point?’ – well, what I am saying is, maybe I am paranoid about my identity on the net, but I prefer that people I don’t know don’t get to know me more than I want them to. Also, many know about this – but are too lazy to use it. Keep things on a need-to-know basis. But it helps. Yes, I do have to put ‘faith’ in the Orkut and Facebook team that they adhere to their policies, but beyond that – I want to be in control. Again, I agree – the limitation being that – someone who knows me outside of a social network creates a profile in my name – well, I really can’t stop that. All I am talking about here is privacy from strangers.

Here are a few tips:

For Orkut:

Information visibility can be controlled ‘Profile Settings’. Access to Photo Albums, Scrap book, getting requests can be controlled in the ‘Privacy tab’ in ‘Settings’. Now 99% of you may know this and 99% of you may use it as well. Photo Tagging can be disabled. Albums can be given access on a per-person or group basis. These can make the person visiting your profile see only that which he/she should see. Orkut is not as good as Facebook when it comes to information hiding, but its simpler and more straightforward.

For Facebook:

-Use the ‘Limited Profile’ feature. I hear that many newly created profiles don’t have that facility. Just make a list – in the ‘Friends’ window. Add people to this limited profile who needn’t be knowing everything about you, but still need to communicate with you – like your office colleague may not need to know about your personal blog page – so he/she can be pushed into a list in which your blog page isn’t shown. Another list in which some people get to see some set of photo albums whereas the rest of them don’t see it at all. Facebook is highly flexible with respect to protecting every bit of your information. Just needs to be tuned to your needs. Oh, yes, after adding people to a particular list, head to the ‘Privacy’ settings under the Settings button. Then to ‘Profile’. There – you can setting to ‘Custom’ where you get an option of ‘Except these people’ – where you can type in the list-name and save the setting. Well, try it out. Leave a comment if you can’t figure out how to use it, sure can help.

-Another setting thats hidden away is in the ‘Search’ option under ‘Privacy’. Here you can change settings to suit your need so that you aren’t searched for, by just about anyone on facebook. Also – the reduce the info shown when your profile shows up.

-This one – ‘News Feed and Wall’ – under that – there is another one called ‘Facebook Ads’ which may use some of your profile information (pictures, application use, interests) to create custom ads for showing to your friends. Its not really a loop hole in privacy per se, but again, you can opt out of it.

-Under ‘Applications’ (still within ‘Privacy’) – there are set of controls for information being passed on to ‘Applications’ (like Mafia wars, what is your personality type?, etc..) – best to uncheck all, imo. (But check  – ‘Don’t allow … to view membership … Facebook connect’, the ‘Beacon sites…’).

Tweaking these settings can really shut you out from any stranger trying to view into your profile.

To end, I remember, my friend from coll – a comp wiz and a master at explaining technology as he took a seminar on ‘Computer Security & Hacking’ when we were all in the 1st year, telling me – “There is no perfect security system, otherthan, probably, enclosing yourself and the computer inside a radiation proof room, then seal it around and then sink yourself to the greatest depths of the ocean. Even then computer security may not be at a 100%!”. We can only keep improving, but there is no real end to it all.

Hope this has been of some help and consciousness raising to a few. Some of you may not have used these features. Some may know better. Comments welcome.