The private chats of Bollywood actors discussing light drugs are on news TV. They satisfy the voyeuristic impulses of people. Who wouldn’t like a peep into the private lives of Bollywood celebrities?
Yet, these alleged chats leaking into our living rooms have also horrified people. Is there no such thing as privacy? Are my WhatsApp chats also being accessed by every Tom, Arnab and Navika?
India needs a solid privacy law
If you are worried about that, there are a few steps you can take to safeguard your privacy. The first step would be to start taking the issue of privacy seriously enough — demand a privacy law in India.
A data privacy law has been pending before Parliament, but it is a poor draft. And so even if it is passed, it won’t actually do much to safeguard the privacy of citizens. It is oriented towards enabling the government to access your data without much trouble.
Remember that we have been told in the past that privacy is the concern of a few elites. Technology companies often wonder if privacy is just something a bunch of activists make a lot of noise about or whether the average consumer actually cares for it. Many say, ‘Why should I be afraid when I have done no wrong?’ Well, then, why don’t you have that nasty fight with your spouse publicly on Facebook. If you don’t care about your privacy, then someone can put up that fight you had with your spouse on Facebook by accessing your private phone chats.
When you live in a country whose government told the Supreme Court that privacy is not a fundamental right, and that people don’t even have an ‘absolute’ right over their own bodies — it is time to start taking phone privacy seriously.
Take control of your privacy
The good news is that over the years, Android and iPhone have been strengthening privacy controls. You are getting ever more control over what personal data an app can take from you.
The bad news is that you still have to understand the issues for yourself, invest time and effort in figuring out where you are vulnerable. There is no such thing as 100 per cent data privacy. But the difference between 50 per cent privacy and 99 per cent privacy lies in your effort.
Update your apps: From across the world, there are malware and spyware that keep coming up and hitting the digital ecosystem, like asteroids in the universe. By the time a patch comes up and the vulnerability is found and fixed, your data may already have been compromised. This is why it is important to keep your phone and computer operating systems, as well as all apps therein, updated all the time. Switching on automatic updates is a good idea. Updating as soon as you see a pending update is good hygiene.
Don’t allow everything: All kinds of apps will ask you for all kinds of permissions, often for no good reason. Don’t give them permission unless it makes sense. For instance, why should the NaMo app have permission to see all your private photos in your photo gallery? Disallow.
Set app-specific passwords: Many apps, including WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, let you set app-specific passwords (or require fingerprint or face ID). Even if someone gets access to your phone physically or through hacking, this adds a layer of security.
Don’t trust iCloud or Google Drive: What’s on iCloud or Google Drive can be easily hacked into and is not protected by end-to-end encryption. Upload on the cloud only if you’re fine with strangers seeing your content. Are you ok with Navika Kumar seeing that photo of you? Fine, upload on cloud.
Understand T&Cs, then allow
The problem is that many of us just give permissions without understanding what we are permitting. WhatsApp itself will trouble you from time to time to backup your chats and you think that’s not a bad idea. This backup is stored on your iCloud or Google Drive. This is how, it seems, that private chats of Bollywood actors are coming out in public domain.
Use Signal for disappearing messages: There is a fundamental problem with chatting. People chat in the moment. They say and do things in that moment, just like oral speech. The private conversation you had with a friend in a bar, you don’t archive it somewhere. But chats are being archived and could come back to haunt you. A good privacy practice is to not archive them at all. The Signal app is considered the safest and the most trustworthy. Its ‘disappearing messages’ feature makes the message disappear in some time, after it is read by the recipient. You can choose how long the message stays, between five seconds to a week.
WhatsApp does not have this feature, and needs it desperately. Telegram has it.
Deleted messages? In the Bollywood cases, it seems that deleted messages have also been recovered. Even if you delete a message from your WhatsApp, or delete WhatsApp itself, the messages could be recovered through a forensic investigation into your phone.
With disappearing messages on Signal, perhaps this may not be as easy. But even this has been known to be not 100 per cent safe in the past. There is no such thing as 100 per cent safety, but Signal’s disappearing messages are much safer than, say, letting years of random chatting stay on your phone and/or cloud service.
Switch off media auto-download: You’ve heard of viruses getting installed on your computer from shady email attachments. You don’t download shady email attachments. Something similar happens on your phone, especially on WhatsApp. This is called ‘media auto-download’. A random stranger sends you a photo or video, it gets automatically downloaded to your photo gallery, and installs malware on your phone. To prevent this, switch off the media auto-download option. Anyone, even trusted contacts, will send you a photo or video and you will have the option of downloading it at will. You can, thus, decide what you want to download and what you don’t want to download, just like email attachments. This will also help save memory space on your phone.
Security and privacy upgrades in recent years have made it tougher to install such malware, but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious.
The author is contributing editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.