Social Media and Cybercrime: Is Your Social Life Really Private?

Anuradda Banerjee
Sep 23, 2014 06:00 IST
cyber crime

‘I hate the chief of my company or a certain leader’

This tweet on twitter will not only set the twitterati ablaze but can set your life ablaze. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn are not mere social networking sites, but are digital scrapbooks.

Gone are the days, when one could write, erase or just burn typewritten documents. Something which is ‘online’ will remain ‘online’. The main attraction of privacy and barrier free communication of social media has resulted in more social information. Online space is presumed to be private and ethereal. But our communications are public and forever. Despite the privacy settings, one of your close frenemies can email or print screen your objectionable or embarrassing content.

Robert Jay Lifton called the self as ‘protean’. The experience of being at one`s computer, mobile feels so private that we easily forget our true circumstance: with every connection we leave an electronic trace. We give off so much information online, which can lead to severe consequences in future. For example, a significant number of fake accounts have been utilized by bots and cyborgs who try to mimic human users in order to distribute spam on Twitter to spread false influence and opinions. In this ‘information is gold age’, fake accounts are sold online for a price anything from 30 to 1,000$ (Thomas, 2013).

Recent studies showed that the amount of spam messages on social networks (more specially, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn) has increased to 355% in the first half of 2013 (Nexgate, 2013). It is an astounding alarm for the digital users to keep a check on their online social life.

Although popular service providers like Gmail for example have the spam folder for spam mails, but there are deceptive emails which come directly in our inboxes asking for sensitive data. These mails are sent by hackers to track the IP address and with other ulterior motives.

Recently concluded conference about new Media, privacy and big data organized by the Deutsche Welle (Bonn, Germany) focused on internet security. The conference attendees were asked about ‘how often do they review their friend list on Facebook, ‘is their profile open to all’, ‘how often do they update systems’, ‘do they have antivirus on phones’?

Figure 1: Instances of getting too emotional on Facebook     (Courtesy: Figure 1: Instances of getting too emotional on Facebook


This conference was sort of an eye opener on the complacent attitude towards our digital footprints. One of the experts said ‘keep a check if the power consumption of your system is more than usual’. This can be a trigger sign for your system to get hacked. He also advised not to make online transactions on cell-phones, as it is certainly not safe. Another important point discussed was Wi-Fi zone and security. We tend to use Wi-Fi when it`s free, forgetting the repercussions. Free Wi-Fi zones are not secure for accessing personal data.

“Freedom of expression cannot be ensured without respect to privacy in communications”. (Frank La Rue, United Nations Special report on Freedom of Expression and Opinion). The right to privacy is often understood as an essential requirement for the realization of the right to freedom of expression. Undue interference in people`s privacy - can directly and indirectly limit the free development and exchange of ideas, which are vital to every democracy.

Recently there has been a considerable increase in status updates ‘I have only one profile, I guess my profile is hacked, if you get friend requests just ignore’.

My master thesis research was based on identity negotiations taking place on Facebook. It was observed during the research interviews that many respondents felt ‘I have my privacy settings but I have no idea whether it works’. This is a critical question which needs to be answered. Do online settings really make us secure?


Figure 2: Social media usage of burglars. (Courtesy: Figure 2: Social media usage of burglars. (Courtesy:

Research on the psychology of security showed that security mechanisms are often difficult to understand for users and that users often fail to recognize risks. (Alshalan, 2008).This can be related to the fact that security risks often seem too abstract for users, which makes such security risks less persuasive than risks with concrete consequences (Hale, 1996).

Therefore, it is important to strengthen a user's awareness of security risks and integrate the user into the design of applications by leveraging user-centered security design (Henson.B, Reyns. B.W, & Fisher, B. S 2013). Cybercrime may not be totally distant from conventional crime.

In a mixed method study, (Yu, 2012) found that some people tend to equate a cybercrime with a conventional crime. For example, hacking at times was seen as analogous to burglary and digital piracy is equivalent to theft. For instance, males are more likely to become a victim but fear of crime is generally more prevalent among females (May, Rader, & Gooddrum, 2010; Hale, 1996; Fisher, 1995; Warr, 2000; Jennings, Gover, & Pudrzynska, 2007). A survey conducted by the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University (Alshalan, 2008) indicates some similar findings related to fear of cybercrime.

Avoid write anything impulsively about a fight, political incident just after watching television.Preferably do not reveal everything about your college, workplace, and family on social media.Update your system regularly and do not ignore the software updates.Do not make online transactions (bill payments) through your cell phone.

Do not access personal data in free insecure Wi-Fi zones.

Avoid adding people seeing only their profile pictures and do not post inappropriate pictures.


 Figure 3: Quick tips one must follow on a social media platform

We have so many friends and followers who might be judgemental while reading your online outburst. If you had a fight with your friend reach out to him/ her and clear the air in personal rather than updating it on Facebook. Relationships are prime focus on such media channels. Do not make your personal life so private when the room for privacy is closed. Cricket, crime and cinema are the three selling C`s in Indian media.

We all get agitated, excited or passionate when any one of these nerves are hurt. Also there are numerous instances of virus fled pictures of celebrities which when downloaded steals all the date from your system. There has to be considerable media attention and social awareness of correct online behavior. Maybe a mainstream Hindi movie with a few cricketers in it, might help.

Internet which was initially used for personal use has now become the most important work tool. But online security is  still not on the highest priority for many of us. The number of people regularly buying an antivirus software for laptops are considerably less, and far lesser for smartphone users. There is a need to view computer scans equivalent to regular body health check ups.

Figure 4: Social media mistakes. (Courtesy: Figure 4: Social media mistakes. (Courtesy:

Older people and females reported a higher level of fear of cybercrime; prior victimization heightens fear; perceived crime seriousness predicts more fear. It is important to note, however, cybercrime was measured as an aggregate construct instead of individual crimes in this survey. I had procured similar data during my research. Girls had privacy settings even for chats. They would customize their chat availability options. Some had fake names which made them untraceable. Some did not entertain requests from strangers unless they had mutual friends.


The number of people using the internet is considerably increasing but the number of security aware netizens is unfortunately not increasing with the same pace. We must keep a close watch for threat signals in our system. Technology has made our life modern and convenient, however instances of usage of credit card in vulnerable public wifi networks or smart phones should be avoided.

‘’Don`t judge a book by it`s cover” is applicable in digital world as well. One should not approve friend requests, followers only by viewing photos of people online.

Recently there were cases of murder of a young girl who had befriended and confided to a stranger she had met online for ten days. It is well known that SNS (Social Networking sites)  are useful to expand our networks. But divulging sensitive information or risking one’s life by getting too friendly with online strangers (by viewing pictures only) is certainly not advisable. MMS scams, misuse of photographs are a result of these unfortunate incidents. One must think zillion times before posting private pictures publicly online. Online settings must be reviewed frequently. If we can follow this checklist, it may keep us digitally secured.


World view: Cyber Security

Last year, Oscar nominated movie ‘Her’ which has the main protagonist falling in love with an operating system and her voice is a sign of the times to come. We will be living, loving and spending more of our lives online.

From information being scarce in the 60’s to information being ubiquitous in the dotcom era, information has become as double edged weapon. The consumption of online information has increased tremendously and it is virtually impossible to monitor every single mouse click. There is high need for self-policing and mature internet usage among every class and generation of users.  The unprecedented growth in Internet technology has made the world an extremely interconnected world. For example, a virus attack on the US homeland security website can have large implications on major parts of the world because of the sensitive and richness of information.



Cyber security is also important for the privacy and democratic ideals of an individual. Recently, with the well-known disclosure by Edward Snowden on the use of state machinery to monitor private lives of citizens, one needs to be very cyber secure’ on what discusses, shares and even buys online.

There have been instances all over the world from the Arab spring to Middle Eastern uprising and others, wherein social media security has been comprised and misused the government. There is a twofold need, one being extremely vigilant online behavior and an independent cyber police which can handle internal as well as external threats.

Parenting and social Atmosphere

Another aspect of cyber security is the drastic changes in the parenting and social atmosphere in upbringing of a child. Modern age parents with multiple jobs and a highly stressful work schedule want to be connected to their offspring’s online or through smartphones.  Also the social pressure has made smartphones and tablets the ‘new gold’ of the Indian middle class.

Gone are the days, when one had to wait till the age of 18 to get an electronic device. Toddlers get an Apple as early as the age of six, which is nothing but a license to experience the World Wide Web. Ironically, according to a recently published interview, Steve Jobs himself was a low tech parent. His children did not use smartphones as he believed in limiting the amount of technology used at home and bedrooms (New York Times, 2014).

It will not be surprising, if in 2020, we physically transmit food online and cyber armies and internet social assistance will be the norm.  A society changes it`s habits and behaviour either when there is a disaster or when it has been forced to. Definitely there will be marked change in online behavior and information patterns of the next generation, but before any social disaster, it is important to be more vigilant, mature and smart online.

‘Awareness’ is the first step to have a safe digital experience. As internet is a globalized borderless world in itself. The government should make the cyber laws stringent and create alertness amongst citizens. As we are swiftly adapting new technologies we must be proactive about the after effects. Digital citizens must adhere to the norms to safeguard their online footprints. Hence, as rightly said, limiting technology usage and judicious usage of this new technological tool will prevent it from being a monster, otherwise I do foresee a new doctoral degree in universities called Doctorate in cyber-nomics!!


Online References



Turkle, S. (2011). Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Chestnut Street, Philadelphia: Basic Books.


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