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Stolen Identities

Mentioning profiles on sites like Orkut may be putting lakhs of Indians at the risk of identity theft. HT probes.
None | By Shreevatsa Nevatia, Jatin Gandhi and Neha Mehta, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 28, 2007 02:13 AM IST

Like many of the past-forty generation, Jyoti Gupta (name changed) had no idea what online social networking meant. She also had no knowledge of its most popular face in India, Gupta was, however, rudely forced to cast aside her ignorance on December 31. “The phone rang every 5 minutes. There would be sex-crazed men on the other end, asking, ‘Do you look like the girl in the photo?’”

Convinced that this was a prank, Gupta chose to ignore the persistent pestering. But after being woken up many times at odd hours, she decided to do something about it. “We were getting calls from Singapore, Dubai and Canada. Most callers would mention the name of my neighbour’s 23-year-old daughter. Some would keep repeating the word ‘Orkut’. So I decided to ask what this was all about.”

When Gupta finally rang the bell next door, she found the neighbours distraught. The father, whose daughter works as an airhostess, tearfully confessed to having seen the offending profile of his daughter on Orkut, the social networking website. She had been made out to be a nymphomaniac, and worse still, the photographs on the site were of her in uniform. Adding insult to injury, the creator of the fake profile had given out the family’s precise address and the residential phone numbers of others who lived in the same central Delhi housing block.

Once the family reported the fake profile to Orkut, it was taken off. But it came back after only a couple of days, and it continues to be online to this day. At the direction of Kamini Lau, Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate of Delhi, a case has been registered. The Economic Offences Wing of the Delhi Police is conducting investigations and will present a report on February 9. The family of the airhostess did not want to be quoted until the investigations were over, but Gupta’s husband let slip one quip: “This is the dark side of Orkut.”

As of January 2006, 5 million of Orkut’s 40 million users were Indian. With the site becoming more popular in the country by the day, this number is estimated to have zoomed up. And with every new profile added, the scope of identity theft multiplies.

Online and paranoid

The ordeal of the Guptas and their neighbours is not unique. Last year, a 20-year-old undergraduate student of Bangalore’s MES College found her Orkut pictures morphed and posted as nudes. “She went into depression and would break down frequently,” recounts her teacher M. Archana. Finally, the girl’s peers and teachers were able to rid her of the trauma by explaining that it was all someone else’s doing.

Nalini Bhaskar, a Master’s candidate at the Delhi University, has started taking the precaution of blurring her online pictures. As a measure of the paranoia that surrounds Orkut at present, it is worthwhile to note that Bhaskar and several other Orkutians insisted on anonymity in this story.

Many are taking more drastic steps. Mehak Nair, a media professional in Mumbai, has taken all her pictures off Orkut. She says, “The it’s-alright-until-it-happens-to-me logic doesn’t apply anymore. A few months ago, a friend spotted another profile with my picture. I still haven’t found it, but it scares me.”

Copying and pasting of pictures is an option that can easily be made unavailable to users by Orkut’s administrators. The site, which is owned by Google, has circulated a feedback form asking users to suggest new features. If enough people tick the box saying ‘Restrict the copy and paste function of photos’, the service would be barred.

Numbers aside, one would assume that the plight of the airhostess and others would be enough reason for Orkut to act. But no corrective step has been taken yet. The fear is that one does not even need to publicly display one’s picture on the site for identity to be stolen. With increasing ubiquity of phone and digital cameras, the transfer of pictures to computers has become commonplace. All it takes for your character to be defamed is malicious intent, an Internet connection, and your picture on the perpetrator’s PC.

It’s not just about pictures. A 24-year-old television employee in Mumbai has stayed off social networking sites after someone hacked into her account and sent her online friends lewd messages from her account.

A sizeable majority of female Orkut users do confess to being stalked by male strangers, who bombard message books with overtures that range from ‘Do you want to make friendship’ to ‘Do you want to make love’. Nandeeta Seth, who works with a finance firm in Delhi, says, “I was scrapped by a few unknown women, but then found out that they were just men faking their way through.” Seth has now resorted to sending friends private messages, and not public ‘scraps’ — an Orkut message.

Even though the majority of users on Orkut are in their twenties, the site has become popular among schoolgoers, too. A class XI student of Delhi’s Sardar Patel School says, “There were only about 5 Orkut members in May in my school; there must be close to 300 now. They are mostly between classes 9th and 12th. You need to be at least 18 years of age to be on Orkut. So we have lied about our age.”

Just another online tool

Whether a community — virtual or real — would be good or bad is essentially in the hands of the members. Orkut itself hosts communities such as ‘Orkut Police’ and ‘We Hate Fake Profiles’, which trawl Orkut mobilising users against fraudsters.

Twenty-nine-year old Hemanshu Kumar, who teaches at the Delhi School of Economics, is an active Orkutian. He says, “Rather than demanding a blanket ban on Orkut, one needs to realise that one has a responsibility unto himself or herself. Such pages can easily be avoided and one needs to be careful about the personal information put up."

Kumar’s optimism is a result of his Orkut experience, which has been “overwhelmingly positive”. Orkut enabled Kumar to network with a number of Pakistanis through communities such as the Indo-Pak Friendship Club. When Kumar finally took the next step and travelled to Pakistan, he met a number the Pakistani Orkutians. He found that there were many on the other side who were willing to open their arms and homes. “Orkut gave me an opportunity to meet so-called ‘real’ people from Pakistan.”

Himani Ramachandran, who is studying filmmaking at Symbiosis in Pune, points toward other advantages. “We had organised a college fest and much of the publicity and organisation happened through Orkut. Kailash Kher was performing; we found all his Pune fans on Orkut and scrapped them about the details of the event.”

Gauri Ishwaran, principal of Sanskriti School, acknowledges that cyber-stalking is a painful reality. But she concedes, “Orkut is not a bad site for making friends.” Mehak Nair concurs passionately. “Thanks to Orkut, I have been able to get in touch with friends from the 1st standard,” she says. Nair, who believes she is now addicted to Orkut, says, “Life without Orkut would be painful and vacuous in the short-term.”

Much like the divergent opinions on the Orkut communities, the verdict on the social networking site itself clearly remains divided. 

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