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Phishing for trouble: Voice for online privacy concerns gets shriller; Google gets max flak

It was by chance that when I happened to peek into my Spam box yesterday, I found a genuine mail from my bank being caught up in Spam. The mail or the mailer rather, warned me to beware of Vishing by the ever-growing population of digital frauds. So a genuine mail itself was marked as Spam by Gmail. I chuckled to myself at the irony. But what set me thinking about the real privacy concern was the word ‘Vishing’ in the mailer? Now, I had heard about ‘Phishing’ but what is ‘Vishing’? Could it be a typo? So a simple web search revealed that the word is for real and that’s not all. There’s Pharming as well. And Smishing too.

Then a news in the morning newspaper set the ball rolling for the chain of thoughts and the growing buzz around me about the online privacy concern. The Supreme Court of India has asked the government of India to explain why children below 13 years of age weren’t banned from being on social networking sites? Facebook doesn’t allow kids to be on its site. But who does the cross-checking when a child registers on the site – often under the guidance of their parents, who find it cool for their kids to be on these sites. It’s peer pressure, as the kid’s classmate is on Facebook and is connected with his/her cousins in the US or the UK. They are playing games with adults online and often beating them in the games. And how cool is that? So parents simply fake the age to get their child on to Facebook.

If children do not understand the extent of their vulnerability in the online space, the problem is that parents are worse at it. My bank wouldn’t need to send out these mailers in the first place if adults understood the threat. I was at pains explaining to an old teacher of mine after ruining her happiness over her imaginary new richness; trying to explain it to her that the mail from Coca-Cola, that she had won millions of pounds in a lottery and that she had to send them her bank account details with her password – was not real and was a phishing attempt. She wouldn’t believe me. She was lucky, but many are not and who give away the details. Not just that, I know of a case of a close relative who as a part of the vishing racket – I thought it was phishing till then – in fact, submitted Rs 10,000 (about US$ 168) in the visher’s account, who told him that he had won an Airtel lottery of Rs 1,000,000 (about US$ 16,800) and to claim the money he had to submit a sum of money in a particular account. He was supposed to submit another Rs 25,000 (about US$ 420), which he didn’t have and called me up to help him out with the sum. His castles built in the air came shattering down, when I obliged him with the truth.

Amidst all this, we have for ages been subjected to lesser harmful third-party cookies. Websites with origin in Europe have already started warning the user of their cookie policy, when one goes online. But what’s worrisome is the way some advertisers are reacting to Mozilla’s decision to block third-party cookies by default. Mozilla Foundation brings out the popular browser Firefox.

Mozilla, last month, announced that the foundation in collaboration with Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society, would establish a “Cookie Clearinghouse,” a body that would “develop and maintain an ‘allow list’ and ‘block list’ to help Internet users make privacy choices as they move through the Internet.”

Randall Rothenberg, President and CEO of Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), the trade association for interactive marketing in the US, has come down strongly on Mozilla’s move. While rightly so, he wants a voice of the Bureau and other advertisers’ in Mozilla’s decision, what’s worrisome is that how rattled the advertisers have got. Rothenberg spews concerns not only on Mozilla’s decision, but also on its community built add-ons like Adblock Plus. “…the company’s civic positioning and public character are heavily freighted with antipathy toward advertising and the commercial Internet. For example, Mozilla is the world’s largest distributor of Adblock Plus, a browser add-on that impedes advertising delivery on the Internet. Adblock Plus boasts nearly 15 million Firefox users, and is the browser’s No 1 add-on by far, with more than twice as many users as its No 2 add-on, Video Download Helper.

“Like the piracy of music and movies online, ad blocking appears to be a victimless endeavor, but in fact is a possibly illegal activity that deprives a cascading chain of legitimate enterprises of income. In some markets, Adblock Plus is responsible for stopping as much as 50 percent of mainstream publishers’ ads, significantly harming their revenue stream. For small publishers, the effect is devastating.

Rothenberg then goes on to quote Niero Gonzalez, the proprietor of the gamer site Destructoid.com and a member of the IAB’s Long Tail Alliance, who says that half his users are blocking ads. “This means we’re working twice as hard as ever to sustain our company,” Gonzalez has written.

The CEO of IAB goes on to deconstruct the meaning of words like “privacy” and “respect”, which he feels “seem incontestably clear and insistent. Yet they have no single meaning. They are social constructions – and different social constructions have different trade-offs, one of which is the diversity of content, and ideas, on the Internet.”

At this moment, he feels that, in the evolution of the Internet, third-party cookies are the technology that makes small publishers economically viable. “Their elimination will concentrate ad revenues in a shrinking group of giant media and technology companies. It is incumbent on Mozilla, which claims to defend openness and diversity on the Internet, to reconcile its public values with the diminution in diversity that is bound to occur from its proposed actions,” Rothenberg says in his blog.

As a consumer, I might just side with Mozilla, when the threat of my private data is at risk. But wait. Third-party cookies do not track my private data. They instead track my life – my likes, my dislikes and my consumer habits. And I and you, all have contributed in making Google rich, which tracks my search habits and sells data to advertisers. The risk is more with Google selling my biography than the may be harmless third-party cookies. Google knows too much about me and now it’s forcing Google+ down my throat, which it is making mandatory for my ratings, rankings and commenting on its forums. It refuses to give me the ‘Anonymous’ choice or the choice to comment with any other username or email id. I would have to have a Google+ id.

Amidst all this is the threat from Google’s new product – the Google Glass. Besides doing a lot other things, the Glass can take photos and videos, an act, which has lead people talking again about privacy concerns. Google Glass puts at risk not just children and women, but all are vulnerable, intentionally or accidentally be filmed, photographed or recorded without consent and knowledge.

And what all one can do with this data – besides blackmailing is open to imagination. US Congress, reportedly, has sent a set of questions on issues of privacy and security to Larry Page, CEO, Google. The Congress, apparently, hasn’t received a reply yet.

Rothenberg and Gonzalez cast doubt on intentions of Mozilla, and at the usage of Adblock Plus, because it stops the revenue stream of many. But they choose silence on the fact that there are organisations who are just making money on this online concern – whether be privacy or security. Symantec (Norton), Kaspersky, McAfee are just a couple of examples from the thousands of such organisations, which are billion-dollar companies, just by addressing this threat. It’s not just viruses that they handle, but privacy and internet security too.

If the Indian apex court is worried about the vulnerability of children below the age of 13, there are app developers who are equally worried too. But they have their commercial interests of course. One such, the MamaBear family monitoring app, claims to give parents several options to monitor social media. Parents can easily monitor a child’s Instagram and Facebook accounts for signs of trouble. The app claims to help parents keep a tab on photos, language, friends, followers and tagging on social media accounts of their kids.

Why would I need these apps at all? So how grave is the threat of online privacy? Are we getting paranoid? But till the threat is for real, I better be paranoid than be sorry.

My or anybody else’ ideal holiday wishing would be a fishing excursion and watching country folks farming. But in today’s world, whether be on a holiday or not, we constantly have to be on guard for vishing, phishing, pharming and smishing.

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