Published: Monday September 12, 2016
With WhatsApp’s new plans to share some member data with Facebook, social media users say they’re more careful than ever to guard their privacy online.
In a recent poll of over 2,800 Gulf News readers, nearly a quarter said they would quit WhatsApp due to privacy concerns. The messaging app, which encrypts exchanges between users, claims one billion users — almost one in seven of the earth’s population.
The wish for privacy extends far beyond WhatsApp, especially in the UAE. For instance, some fear that future employers will pre-judge candidates after carrying out a simple Google search.
“I value my online privacy because any negative comments or media I upload could jeopardise my career,” says Avinash Sequeira, an Indian expat living in Dubai.
His worries may be well-founded. A study conducted in the US years ago suggested close to 80 per cent of recruiters did screen candidates on search engines — and 35 per cent had rejected potential hires after finding something negative.
Private matters should be simply be kept off the internet, says Ahmad Bin Al Shaikh, an Emirati living in Sharjah. “When it comes to social media, I do not share my serious private matters,” he says. “When it comes to the internet, anything can happen in order for the information to be breached.”
While anything shared online may no longer be private, Rabia Khalid, a Pakistani expat, does not seem to mind.
“Once things are published online I have sort of given this unknown social world a right to view information I might think is my own,” she says.
And she has a point. Using most social networks means you sign over permission for some of your data to be used, although this waiver is often hidden deep in long, seldom-read user agreements.
“Most people do not realise how important privacy online is until they face a breach of their own privacy,” says Farrukh Naeem, an Abu Dhabi-based social media strategist and tech blogger.
And when signing up to a social network or app, “no one these days has time to go through pages and pages of fine print of legalese”, he adds.
Posting content online in the UAE also carries a risk of landing on the wrong side of the law. In recent years, after the exploding popularity of social media, federal laws govern what can legally be shared online.
In August, Australian-British expat Scott Richards was arrested in Dubai after he allegedly promoted a charity on Facebook. Richards appeared to have violated the rules of a 2015 decree.
The decree forbids the collecting of donations through all forms of media without approval from the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department.
In Abu Dhabi in the same year, an Australian expat, Jodi Magi, was arrested and deported for a Facebook post showing a motorist parked in spaces for the disabled. Authorities said the accompanying message she had written was slanderous. She was also fined Dh10,000.
The federal law in the UAE passed in 2012 states that individuals can be prosecuted for publishing pictures of other people without their consent. That same legal code — collectively known as the Cyber Crimes law — also forbids making offensive statements about people online, even if true.
But despite being tough to follow at times, these laws, which legal experts say are partly to protect the privacy of individuals, are “common sense”, says Naeem, the social media analyst.
Yet most people in the UAE still lack awareness, according to a non-profit internet safety group.
“People don’t know the law, first of all,” says Mohammad Mustafa Saidalavi, founder of the Emirates Safer Internet Society. “According to the law, it is illegal to share somebody’s photo [without their permission]. But people don’t know that.”
Whether out of fear of falling foul of laws, or simply the desire to be left alone, some prefer to avoid social media networks altogether.
“I don’t need to post anything on social media,” says Afshan, a British expat who declined to share her full name.
“To me, a lot of these things are childish behaviour. I don’t want anybody to watch me.”
As a parent, she has similar concerns. Despite her 11-year-old son “begging” her for permission to use Snapchat, a social media network, she stayed firm.
“I wouldn’t allow him,” Afshan says.
I’ve got to think of their [my children’s] future – I don’t want them to be overexposed.”
Did you know?
Violating cybercrime laws in the UAE (including through the misuse of social media) can land you a life sentence — and/or a fine between Dh50,000 and Dh3 million
What our readers say:
Are you going to quit WhatsApp due to privacy concerns?
Yes, they are crossing the line 19%
Yes, I have already found an alternative 5%
No, I love WhatsApp 16%
No, I don’t really care about privacy 12%
No, I have changed the privacy settings to exclude sharing contacts 42%
I do not use WhatsApp 6%
Total number of votes: 2,848