Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Who’s watching you?

Heidi Elhakeem reports on online threats to your privacy

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Coming upon someone’s private information on social media isn’t uncommon. With one click on a person’s profile it’s possible to learn about his last holiday destination, where he works, his relationship status and much more.

At the start of 2016, technology continues to improve at a fast pace. The Internet is now a prominent part of people’s daily lives and life events are shared freely and widely on social media. Making this information accessible to the public also makes users more vulnerable to online harm and even threats.

May Kassem, a psychological counsellor at Maadi Psychology Centre, believes it is human nature to be curious and to want to see what other people are doing. Many people go online to satisfy this curiosity. “People want to see and be seen,” Kassem told Al-Ahram Weekly.

But receiving a message like “You usually hang out in Zamalek” should not be taken lightly. Heba (all names have been changed to conceal the identity of the subjects), 26, was concerned when she received this message from a stranger on one of her social media accounts. “I don’t think it’s normal to receive messages from strangers who know where you go,” she said.

Heba also knew a guy in his early thirties who was following her Instagram account. Whenever she uploaded a new post, he would call her and ask about it. As she recalled, he would say comments like, “I like your picture when you were at —” (she wouldn’t tell the Weekly where). “I like what you wore.”

“Sometimes he would deliberately look for the pictures I am tagged in,” she said, and “would even look at my friends’ posts to see what I’ve been up to or where I’ve been.”

This went on for about two months before Heba got sick of it. “I didn’t like his actions, and although I knew him personally I blocked him. I didn’t like that he was aware of my every move.”

Due to the increased use of social media, people are becoming more disconnected in real life, whether from family, friends or romantically. “They could be feeling a sense of loneliness, low self-worth, loss of identity or low self-esteem,” Kassem said. Because of this, they seek some kind of connection online, in the hope of having a sense of belonging.

“Some guy used to like every single picture I posted on Instagram and it was usually after I posted it by only a few minutes,” Nada, a 17-year-old-student, said. This gave her the feeling that she was being watched. After she blocked him, he sent her a message on Facebook that read, “You are screwed up.”

Kassem says snooping around people’s online profiles happens if someone has failed to establish interpersonal relationships in real life. “They can become obsessed with another person, especially with [someone of] the opposite sex.”

This obsessive behaviour, of constantly monitoring someone, could be described as stalking; in other words, to follow, watch and bother someone constantly, as defined by Merriam-Webster.

Online stalking carries the same meaning, but it’s done online. Cyberstalking, a term more formally used, is the repeated use of electronic communications to harass or frighten someone.

Stalking, as a kind of behaviour, is usually classified under addictive or impulse control disorders. “In psychology, we would look at stalking as a problem when it interferes with someone’s daily life to a point where it’s distracting to that person’s life,” said Kassem.

It doesn’t stop at only monitoring someone online. Stalkers could send messages or even harass their victims, hoping to get a response. “They believe that by stalking someone, they have some kind of false sense of intimacy. They can even become delusional, like they think they have a relationship with this person,” Kassem said.

Such people may want to escape real life, especially if they think it’s depressive or distressful. “They escape to a sort of a virtual life that they create for themselves online,” Kassem added.

It’s almost impossible to know if a person is being stalked on the Internet. Most people are not aware of who is viewing their online profiles, unless that person liked their posts or contributed comments.

Cyberstalkers is not necessarily males obsessing over females. Ahmed, 26, had an offline-stalker, a man who, when he gave up trying to approach him, turned to the Internet. The stalking started about three years ago.

Recently, Ahmed received a message from his stalker wishing him a happy new year. “I was alarmed because I was sure I had blocked him,” said Ahmed. It turned out that his stalker had set up a new account in order to reach him.

“I made it clear to him, face to face, that I didn’t want to speak to him ever again but he kept trying to reach me online. I will just keep blocking every account he creates till he gives up.”

Stalking is similar to other kinds of addiction; the person gets a sense of a high or euphoria out of it. It gives them a boost, especially if that person tends to have an unhealthy social life.

“Stalkers feel good about themselves when they look at the profile or pictures of the person they are stalking,” Kassem said. “They keep thinking about that person when they are not online, and they can start to get irritable when they are not online.”

The Internet makes it easier for people to stalk others due to its interactivity, openness and wide global reach. It’s much easier to stalk someone online than in real life.

Even the most private information isn’t hidden from the public. An IT expert, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Weekly that it is almost impossible to have 100 per cent online privacy.

“Even with restricted privacy settings, strangers can still find shared information. Although users are notified of other users following their social media profile, it is impossible to keep track of everyone who is viewing their profile,” the expert said.

Fatma, 26, an engineer at a private company, met someone at work. They started talking but she thought it was bizarre that he added her on Facebook on that same day. “We had only talked once,” Fatma said.

They didn’t have common friends and he didn’t have her phone number. “I later discovered that he added me because he liked me and wanted to check my profile out and learn what he can about me,” she said.

Anyone can create a fake account to pretend to be someone else. “I found out that someone made a fake online-dating account with my name, and used pictures that he took from my Instagram account,” recalled Khaled, 24.

It is possible for users to secure their online presence and minimise the risk of being stalked online. According to nextadvisor.com, there are things you can do to protect yourself. First, make sure to not put personal information on social media, including home addresses and phone numbers. Second, regularly check your privacy settings and change passwords. This will make you less vulnerable to identity theft and hacking.

The IT expert says tech companies and governments need to ensure that technologies are being used responsibly and that people’s online data are protected. “There has to be an effort to educate the general public, particularly teenagers, about Internet safety.”

Parents also have a major role in protecting their children’s online presence. They need to know what their children are using the Internet for. “If their children are spending too much time online, parents should get them involved in other activities or get them to spend more time with their friends instead,” Kassem said.

“Especially because a lot of youth are experiencing low self-esteem and loss of identity, parents have to monitor what their children are doing.” Kassem suggests simply talking to them instead of punishing or banning them from using social media. She adds, “If a teenager is posting pictures that are considered provocative online, the parent has to tell them so.”

Privacy settings on their own will not protect Internet users from online threats. Due to the immense amount of private information shared online, anyone might be stalked online without ever knowing it.

The IT specialist says the only way to achieve complete privacy is to abstain from using social media, but these days that’s like asking people to stop breathing.

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