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How safe are social networking sites?

Vasudha Venugopal and Petlee Peter

Cyber Crime Cell sees persistent stalking as an act of harassment

Photo: R. Ragu

Safety matters: Restricted sharing of information is the key in online safety. College students browsing through a social networking site in Chennai. —

CHENNAI: What began as an innocent friendship on a social networking site through extensive chat sessions turned bitter for Bhuvana (name changed), a 26- year-old IT employee, when after a virtual break-up her erstwhile ‘friend' began stalking her.

“It was after months of sheer nightmare that I realised he was stalking me by continuously following my debit card swipe details,” she says. Bhuvana is one of the many victims of cyber crime perpetrated on social networking sites, often under the cover of fake identities and misrepresentations.

While live status messages, dozens of pictures, comments and chats might often validate a person's cyber existence they also raise questions on security.

Police records show that in 2008, as many as 22 instances of posting objectionable content on a user's profile, and acquiring information by breaching another user's privacy were reported. In 2009, the complaints rose to 62 and in 2010, till October, there is a total of 64 such cases.

According to Central Crime Branch (CCB) sources, all reported cases were committed on Facebook, Orkut or MySpace, with Facebook topping the list.

Several parts of Section 66 of the IT Act 2008 are applied to cyber crime pertaining to social networking sites, depending on the intention of the offender that can vary from causing annoyance to the victim, to even intimidation or humiliation, says Additional Deputy Commissioner of Police, CCB, M. Sudhakar.

The Cyber Crime Cell sees persistent stalking as an act of harassment, wherein a different Act is applied and the offender is jailed for minimum seven years, he adds.

Cyber crime on social forums ranges from acquiring somebody else's identity by hacking into their account to acquiring a fake identity, Dr. Sudhakar says, adding that the punishment under such circumstances is imprisonment for a minimum of three years.

Seeking police help

A classic example of such an offence was that of accused M.P. Saifuddin,(27) from Kodungaiyur who deceived women through Orkut by posing as a top executive of a well-known bank. One of the victims, says a CCB officer, lodged a complaint saying that Saifuddin befriended her by chatting on Orkut and promised to marry her. Citing marriage expenses, he later collected jewellery weighing 15 sovereigns from her. Police subsequently arrested Saifuddin earlier this month after trapping him on Orkut.

Sometimes the victim feels too threatened to seek police help, especially when the offender is someone she knows, and the perpetrator comes back with a new plan of harassment, say experts, adding that many such cases go unreported.

The case of Ann Joseph, a college student here is a reminder of many cyber-safety concerns. “I went on to become a member on Facebook and was shocked to find that someone had impersonated me with a profile and had added some of my friends. There was even a photograph of someone which was tagged with my name,” she says.

Experts say issues such as jurisdiction, loss of evidence, cyber-sensitivity in police officers, relevant laws, and a speedy redressal process have to be looked into.

While most of the technical challenges that Cyber Crime Cell faces have been resolved, Dr. Sudhakar says tracing individuals operating from smaller cyber cafes that do not insist on taking down the details of the users, is a major hurdle which has benefitted many criminals.

Legal aspects

Another crucial issue, experts feel, is the law itself. The Indian Information Technology Act, 2008 (amended), they say, sees it just an “intrusion on to the privacy of individual”.

“If cyber stalking is done only to annoy the victim and does not result in serious offences, it is treated as a bailable offence,” says Debarati Halder, advocate and director, Centre for Cyber Victims Counseling, a non-governmental organisation. There needs to be more reforms in laws to tackle evolving crimes, especially when dealing with personal attack on individuals, she adds.

The variations in social networking usage across countries pose challenges to law enforcement.

“We are spanning boundaries here. Hence, what may be a punishable offence in one country may not be even a violation in another,” Dr Sudhakar says, adding that with no standardisation of laws, cases are viewed under different legal perspectives.

Moreover, users across the globe use different social networking norms, says Gaurav Mishra, network security expert and blogger. “While people from US, Europe, Australia and India tend to use their real identity, those in Japan, Korea, China and parts of South East Asia prefer avatars and pseudonyms,” he points out.

Most cyber crime victims are extremely reluctant to open accounts with social networking sites fearing past experiences, says Ms. Halder, observing that counselling and educating them on their legal rights is vital.

While many schools conduct cyber awareness classes for students and parents, the cyber crime cell, Dr. Sudhakar says, is trying to reach out by issuing cyber pamphlets, and showing movies in schools. To tackle the increasing number of college students falling under the thrall of hacking, the University of Madras and IIT-Madras conduct periodic cyber camps too. “It is important to explain the security threats while assisting senior citizens on the internet, because apart from women and children, they comprise the vulnerable lot too,” says Jayashree Jaichandran, an IT security counsellor.

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