Thursday, September 25, 2014


Courtesy - Clipart
We all know there’s a dark side to any social networking site; much the same way there’s a dark side to the society we live in. Facebook is no different. It’s no secret that escort services and other sleazy rings have adopted FB to expand their scope of operation. For people like you and me – who probably use FB to post our blog links and the odd travel photos (without our mug shots) – this underbelly is always unseen. It is some kind of a netherworld that operates below the radar. Or so I thought.

I’ve always been a stickler for privacy settings – even if the photos I put up are of trees and benches in lonely places. So it came as a surprise when I realised how close the danger lurks. A blogger friend of mine posted in our group in a right state of panic.  She came to know that her profile photo was being used as the profile photo of another user...a woman with a very traditional south Indian name. A couple of us investigated further and sat back disturbed. The fake profile has more than 2700 followers. I don’t have to tell you the purpose of the profile. I suspect that the photos put up on that profile, like my friend’s, are ‘stolen’. As in, most probably the woman does not know her photo is being used for titillation. Oh, and don’t get me wrong. These are not women in the dreaded Western Outfit. My friend, for example, a mother of two kids, is clad in a kanchivaram. This photo was probably taken in a family function. That’s what stung me; angered me.

Despite a churning stomach, I followed up on this profile. My friend’s photo was shared once, by another fake profile. I hopped over to that profile – more photos of women. Some were staged – probably call girls, but there were many photos that looked like they’d been ‘lifted’ from different FB users. Unsuspecting saree-clad women; smiling into the camera, doing puja, standing at a beach and so on.  These photos too were shared from other fake profiles. Some of the pages led me to R-rated stuff. Most of the girls featured in these pages are young – they should have been safe – in their homes, studying for a degree, setting up their future. What is the horrible story behind their trafficking, I wondered.

The other day, there was a message being circulated on FB. It began somewhat this way – ‘A guy sends you a friend request. You don't know him, but he's got a cute profile picture, so you accept’. Apart from the condescending assumption that women are dumb enough add a stranger because he has a ‘cute’ profile, the message displays our strong conditioning – something that sleaze-rings exploit. Here’s our first conditioning: Stranger = Man =  Bad Person. The fact is that most of the sleaze profiles have names of women. Not slutty names. But traditional, innocuous ones like Sandhya, Leena, Deepa and so on. The person behind the profile may be a man – but he knows that both men and women accept friend requests from women far more easily. The second conditioning – it is only little girls who are in danger of being trafficked. Welcome to a sick world. Paedophiles swing both ways. Thirdly -  don’t be under the assumption that only women’s photos are circulated this way. Sure, women are perhaps more vulnerable, but I’m sure there’s a similar operation with male victims too. 

What we came across is just an atom of the whole setup. There are thousands of sleaze pages. If one sits down for a meticulous investigation, the complexity and layers of these rings would be quite mind-boggling. Anyway, we reported the pages to FB, without much hope. The pages have been setup in a clever way – they don’t break any of the terms and conditions. Of course, FB takes down objectionable images when you report them – but photos of women clad in sarees – even if some of them are in a state of undress – don’t really break norms. Consequently, some of the profiles were taken down, but reinstated within 24 hours ‘upon revision’.

Two of my friend’s profiles were impersonated – they notified FB, one of them even showed documentary evidence of her identity – but the FB team was unable to shut the fake profiles. When I say ‘unable’, I really mean the response was vague and frustrating.  My friend has lodged a complaint with the cyber crime cell – but that’s moving at a glacial pace. Understandably, one’s photo being put up on another profile is the least of their priorities.
First and foremost, it’s important to understand security and privacy features of FB. Here are some salient points –

1)    By default, FB sets the privacy of your profile picture to public. You can change it to friends. 
2)   Avoid putting family photos as your cover. The current cover photo is always public, and you can't edit it. You can, however, edit the privacy of older cover photos.
3)   If, as a blogger/writer/artist/entrepreneur etc. , you need to add strangers on your friend list, use the restricted list at the first instance. A person on the restricted list can only see your public posts.
4)    For every post, every photo, you can individually select privacy. 
5)    Please understand how cookies work. By trade laws, all websites are allowed to use cookies. Cookies are a way of tracking your internet habits. That is why, if you have been browsing a product on Amazon, you'll probably see it on the ad bar on FB. FB is not spying on you - it is the entire internet that is interested in you as a consumer. Be aware of this. There's no such thing as absolute privacy on the internet.
6)    Please understand how platform applications work. If this is enabled on FB, your activities on other sites can be pushed as notifications to your timeline (and newsfeed). For example, if you read any article on, say, The Hindu, while you are logged on to FB, and you leave a comment, ‘like’ or ‘recommend’ the article etc - it comes up on your timeline. Be aware of this. If you don't want to advertise what you've been reading, what business service you have used and rated, your running/jogging/walking route...TURN OFF platform applications. 
7)  Same goes with advertising your location - so if you've been to some place, eaten somewhere, are sitting in an airport - we all know. Be aware of this. 
8)   Be vigilant when you access FB through mobile devices in public wifi hotspots. Change passwords regularly. Also, avoid logging into FB from another application as much as possible. For example, clicking on a FB notification link from your personal email ID. 
9)    Please search your name in Google - and click on images. It's good to do this at regular intervals. If your photo is being used inappropriately, you will at least know the website. 
10) On FB, there is an option to disable your name and profile appearing in public domain searches. Please select that. If, for some reason, you do want your audience to reach you (because you are running a business, etc) then I would recommend buying a separate domain name, building a website and directing your folks to that. Keep FB for social purposes only. 
11)  Use FB to reflect your real- life behaviour. Before you put up a photo, think - in real life, is this the photo I'd show an acquaintance I've only met once or twice? 
12) Children are very vulnerable. Do think about how and where you want to share their photos. Even for a casual observer like me - when I browse a profile that's not well-regulated in terms of privacy - I get to know these all details just by looking at status updates and comments: Where the husband and wife work (and therefore an assessment of their income); what kind of house they live in (through photos); which city they stay; how many kids; where the kids study; the kids' appearance; typical routine of the family; holiday plans; previous holidays; number of people at home. 
13) You can tweak your privacy setting to disallow your name from being searched in FB. You can control who can send you friend requests.
14) You can also disable the 'follow' button. 'Follow' allows people to keep track of your public posts WITHOUT being your friend. So if you are lax about your privacy settings, just about anyone can keep a track of you.

At the end of the day, there is only so much an individual can do to use FB (or any networking site) responsibly. I am more concerned about the ethical responsibility of FB. There is a thin line between freedom of expression and freedom of oppression. FB must to do more than just rely on a user-monitoring/feedback mechanism to keep a tab of dubious profiles and pages. As of now, based on what we came across, FB is skating on thin ice – it has unfortunately provided a platform for sexual exploitation.

I suppose the first question you want to ask me is, ‘Why don’t you all deactivate your accounts?’ Personally speaking, I use FB for all the right reasons and not just to satiate some narcissistic needs. But more than that, I think of the many women who are unaware their photos have been circulated. I think of those girls who have been made to pose for those photos. I realise I’m tired of looking away. This time, I will stand my ground. And fight for decency.

© Sumana Khan - 2014


  1. HI Sumana, You have summed it up. I am fed of people dropping in to say that it is a woman's fault when they don't protect their identity. How will an old couple trying to connect with their kids in another part of the world know this? They too have pics of the ladies of their house in their profile too. It will be great if people like them get aware of this 'problem' (I refuse to give them any more importance) and follow the rules.

  2. I have shared it. It is scary and distressful.

  3. Thanks for putting this info up on your blog, Sumana! I see no reason to deactivate my account, either! That would be equivalent of not wearing 'western wear' or not walking out at night! A signal of surrender!