Opinion: Prevention is better than cure, even in the digital world

Cyberstalking of women and children has emerged as one of the more widespread forms of online threats. — Technology vector created by vectorjuice - www.freepik.com

A young woman, an avid social media user like millions of others, gets a “Follow” request on Instagram one day from a profile that carries some of her pictures, on which some people have made some unsavoury comments. She sees, to her horror, that the profile is being followed by some of her real-life friends.

Worse, the “follow” request is accompanied by a deluge of lewd messages in her inbox. She blocks the profile and requests her friends to unfollow and report the account immediately.

Even though she moves on with her life, the effect of this shocking incident lingers for long after, leaving her continually worried about the possibility of a recurrence or something worse.

Scenarios like the above are worryingly common in today’s world, where easy access and increased use of social media and other digital platforms have made life enjoyable and convenient on one hand but exposed us to a whole set of online dangers on the other.

The affordability of smartphones and data tariffs has led to ever-increasing adoption of the digital medium over the past couple of decades – a trend that has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, as the number of productive uses of digital platforms increased, so has the number of online threats.

The past year has seen a particularly marked increase in cybercrime, in terms of the numbers and the types of cyberattacks on businesses, governments, and individuals. Cyberstalking of women and children has emerged as one of the more widespread forms of online threats.

Cyberstalking is defined as the act of misusing the Internet to harass, defame, abuse, embarrass, or intimidate someone through actions such as stealing their identity, sending them threatening messages or emails, tracking their location, uploading obscene images, posting derogatory comments, or causing data destruction or manipulation by sending malware to their devices.

Cyberstalking also takes the form of social media creeping, catfishing, and installing stalkerware. The most common of these is “catfishing”, wherein a cybercriminal impersonates someone else on social media with the intention of defaming you, or luring you into an online relationship, or gaining access to your personal information.

A catfisher could assume the identity of someone you know – a love interest, a mutual friend, a professional acquaintance – or even a stranger who wants “to be your friend”.

However, the first telltale sign of a catfisher is that the profile will have only a handful of followers or friends. Another common sign is a marked reluctance on their part to divulge personal information. It is possible that even the photos they have posted belong to someone else. This can easily be checked by conducting a reverse image search on Google. If a photo is stolen from a public online source, Google can show you what the true source of the image is.

To help prevent cyberstalkers from gaining access to your identity, the following measures can be taken:

— Make sure that you have strong, complex, and distinct passwords for all your online accounts. Keep changing them at reasonable intervals. It is advisable to use two-factor authentication wherever the facility is available.

— Pay close attention to the privacy settings on your device and on all the apps you use – whether social media or any other.

— Try and limit your Internet browsing to trusted, secured websites. Do not allow anyone other than yourself to access your computer, smartphone, or your personal devices. Always set a password to unlock your screen.

— Keep the location settings on your device “off” at all times when you don’t need them. And be sure to log out of all accounts and programs when you step away from your device.

— Consider investing in a full-service Internet security suite for real-time protection against ransomware and viruses. It is a small cost to pay for protecting your private data and financial information from cybercriminals.

It is also a good idea to be abreast of the existing laws against cyberstalking. In India, cyberstalking complaints are addressed under two laws – the Information Technology Act 2000 and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013. Both these laws are aimed at enabling safer browsing and reducing cyberstalking incidents.

Whether they are aware of the laws or not, a significant percentage of Indians are aware – in some cases, from personal experience – that they are vulnerable to online threats. According to the 2021 Norton Cyber Safety Insights Report, over 27 million Indian respondents had experienced identity theft in 2020. More than a third (36%) of the adults in the survey had detected unauthorised access to their account or device in the past 12 months. As many as 77% of the responders said they wanted to do more to protect their privacy, while 76% were proactively looking for better ways of doing so.

Our lives have become inexorably dependent on digital devices and technologies, and this dependence is only likely to increase in the future. Online threats will evolve as will the solutions to combat them.

Against this dizzying and scary backdrop, the best way to protect yourself from online threats like cyberstalking is also perhaps the most obvious one – be very careful and very selective about how much of your personal information you share online and who you share it with. It is often hard to tell truth from lie, and real from fake, in the digital world. – The Hindustan Times, New Delhi/Tribune News Service

(This article has been written by Ritesh Chopra, Director Sales and Field Marketing, India & SAARC Countries, NortonLifeLock)

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