Nothing is free; privacy is the price
“Woman Stalked across 8 websites by Obsessed Shoe Advertisement,” says a headline in theonion.com. The article is a hilarious take on what we let ourselves in for, by merely browsing an e-commerce site. Its advertisements, displaying the product you were browsing and its variants, then seem to stalk you across the WorldWideWeb for months on end. This may not be such an irritant if it is books, gizmos or travel destinations are stalking you, but can be downright embarrassing when lingerie ads begin to flash on your browser, especially on office computers.
Then, again, it is the best time to be a consumer in India since e-commerce firms are burning up piles of cash to woo you with big discounts and deals. How concerned should you be about signing up for that spiffy app which offers Rs100 off on your first order?
In contrast to their cavalier treatment of our rights and privacy, e-commerce companies have aggressive legal departments to protect their rights, liabilities and trademarks from real and imaginary infringement. Mistakes in their product promotions and discounts are also covered by these disclaimers and usually set right only if the reputational damage is likely to be higher than the price of a problem product. Check a few examples.
A cash-back site, which is aggressively marketing itself, says in the fine print: “we cannot guarantee the absolute security of your information as complete security of information during transmission is virtually impossible.” Most people have touching faith in technology and will be shocked at this disclaimer.
The same company, like others in this space, asks you to indemnify it “against all liability, loss, claim, demand, damage or expense that may occur” during your transactions, or even in T&Cs listed by them. This also covers “error or omission or any loss” due to wrong information posted by them and absolves them from liability even if a virus from the website affects your computer.
Can’t you stop any of it? Geeks will tell you a complicated process that may allow you to block cookies and ‘opt out’ from allowing access to some of your personal information. But, often, you have no choice. The smarter ones take extreme and expensive precautions like having separate smart phones and email IDs for all their app downloads including for ordering cabs, food, or even cooking gas and e-shopping. Many are linked through e-wallets, rather than to their credit card. Dr Anupam Saraph recently told Moneylife Foundation members that using a credit card is always preferable to debit cards, since the former will at least gives you time to repudiate a false claim.
But what about bank accounts, investments and tax filings? Will those go on to your secure phone or e-commerce phones? While private banks have huge teams working on e-security, can the same be said about government databases, which now want to link all our personal and commercial information and identity to our biometrics?
While most developed nations, especially European countries, have clear ‘right to forget’ laws, for negative personal information and financial information posted on websites, awareness and concern about privacy issues is abysmal in India. Does any e-commerce site or app allow you to block them or a ‘wipe clean’ option that deletes the information you gave them at the time of registration? Until the demand for such an option gathers momentum, a smart policy is to pause and think before indiscriminately downloading every new app or service that promises a discount or freebie.