How do I know if I have a cyberstalker?

A lot of people out there seem to be creeped out at the thought that they might have a stalker following their online activities. They want to know who is viewing their profiles, looking at their photos, reading their status updates and how often.

On Facebook, there have been many applications advertised to let you find this information and all of them are fakes. It’s a good thing, too. These applications may satisfy your curiosity, but they treat all of the friends that you added to your profile as potential stalkers. Even if it were possible to find a Facebook application that reveals your profile views, by using that application to find stalkers you would become the very thing that you were trying to avoid. You’d be stalking your friends’ online activities and snooping on actions that they believed were their own, private actions.

Recently, professional site LinkedIn have removed anonymity from profile views, based on a user setting. MySpace have a similar feature: if you want to see who views your profile, you must let them see your activity. If you consider how frequently Facebook is changed, it seems that there is every chance that Facebook will add the same feature in the future. Facebook also have a disturbing policy of enabling new settings by default. It hasn’t happened yet, but it is a reason to be vigilant. If you want to sacrifice your privacy in order to satisfy your curiosity it should be your choice and the choice of those who do not want to sacrifice their privacy should be respected as well.

So, do you have a stalker?

The first thing to get clear in a discussion about stalking is what stalking actually is. That way we can avoid persecuting and humiliating innocent people with the reputation-damaging label “stalker”.

A stalker is not someone who views your social profiles. It is not someone who views your page a lot. It is not someone who views your photos and it is not even someone who downloads them. None of these activities automatically make someone a stalker.

If you are really being stalked it is a serious matter. It is illegal in at least some countries, as a form of threat and harassment.

The US legal definition states that not only do you have to be followed, but it is “with the intent to place that person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm” (I suggest you read the whole definition here).

Cyber stalking also involves high levels of harassment, distress and the intent to track down and meet a person in the physical world. To reduce the chance that someone can trace you in the physical world you can read our guides on using location-based Facebook and how to use Twitter safely.

I have to suggest that before you accuse someone of being a stalker you should think very carefully. Are you really under threat of death or injury just because someone views your photos online? Photos that you published yourself? Because when you put things online, your social profiles, your location, your pictures, your thoughts, your job description, you are publishing it.

If you are reading this and you do have a real stalker, if you are living in fear of physical harm, then contact local law enforcement.

Now that I have that warning out of the way, I can give you some practical tips in case you are curious about how much your profiles are getting viewed. I know that a lot of people have encountered this blog by searching for ways to discover so-called stalkers or to find out how to track people online better. I know because I can see how searchers came to this site. Yes, I can see that.

If you look around you can find there are several sites and services that give you viewing statistics. I already mentioned the features in MySpace and LinkedIn, which allow you to see the details of your viewers so long as you are willing to reveal your details to them. That’s a nice way to do it.

Blogging sites offer statistical views of how many views you have for each post and where the posts have been linked. This is still somewhat anonymous, but that should be fine. It is still a lot of information.

YouTube even have a little statistics area that can be opened up from underneath each video that tells you the age, gender and country of the video’s viewers and which link or search brought them to the video.

Facebook? The best advice I can give you is this: Why don’t you just ask?

Ask your friends and they might even tell you. You can also use common sense: Find out who comments most often and who ‘likes’ the most photos and status updates; the chances are that they view your profile the most often and that they are also very active Facebook users.

Of course, going through your Facebook Friends’ list and removing anyone you do not trust personally is always a good idea.

Here on Safe and Savvy we have a lot of posts related to online privacy. If you are still curious then take a look at our archives and subscribe to our RSS Feed.

More posts from this topic

sign license

POLL – How should we deal with harmful license terms?

We blogged last week, once again, about the fact that people fail to read the license terms they approve when installing software. That post was inspired by a Chrome extension that monetized by collecting and selling data about users’ surfing behavior. People found out about this, got mad and called it spyware. Even if the data collection was documented in the privacy policy, and they technically had approved it. But this case is not really the point, it’s just an example of a very common business model on the Internet. The real point is what we should think about this business model. We have been used to free software and services on the net, and there are two major reasons for that. Initially the net was a playground for nerds and almost all services and programs were developed on a hobby or academic basis. The nerds were happy to give them away and all others were happy to get them for free. But businesses run into a problem when they tried to enter the net. There was no reliable payment method. This created the need for compensation models without money. The net of today is to a significant part powered by these moneyless business models. Products using them are often called free, which is incorrect as there usually is some kind of compensation involved. Nowadays we have money-based payment models too, but both our desire to get stuff for free and the moneyless models are still going strong. So what do these moneyless models really mean? Exposing the user to advertising is the best known example. This is a pretty open and honest model. Advertising can’t be hidden as the whole point is to make you see it. But it gets complicated when we start talking targeted advertising. Then someone need to know who you are and what you like, to be able to show you relevant ads. This is where it becomes a privacy issue. Ordinary users have no way to verify what data is collected about them and how it is used. Heck, often they don’t even know under what legislation it is stored and if the vendor respects privacy laws at all. Is this legal? Basically yes. Anyone is free to make agreements that involve submitting private data. But these scenarios can still be problematic in several ways. They may be in conflict with national consumer protection and privacy laws, but the most common complaint is that they aren’t fair. It’s practically impossible for ordinary users to read and understand many pages of legalese for every installed app. And some vendors utilize this by hiding the shady parts of the agreement deep into the mumbo jumbo. This creates a situation where the agreement may give significant rights to the vendor, which the users is totally unaware of. App permissions is nice development that attempts to tackle this problem. Modern operating systems for mobile devices require that apps are granted access to the resources they need. This enables the system to know more about what the app is up to and inform the user. But these rights are just becoming a slightly more advanced version of the license terms. People accept them without thinking about what they mean. This may be legal, but is it right? Personally I think the situation isn’t sustainable and something need to be done. But what? There are several ways to see this problem. What do you think is the best option?   [polldaddy poll=8801974]   The good news is however that you can avoid this problem. You can select to steer clear of “free” offerings and prefer software and services you pay money for. Their business model is simple and transparent, you get stuff and the vendor get money. These vendors do not need to hide scary clauses deep in the agreement document and can instead publish privacy principles like this.   Safe surfing, Micke     Photo by Orin Zebest at Flickr

Apr 15, 2015
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webpage screenshot TOS

Sad figures about how many read the license terms

Do you remember our stunt in London where we offered free WiFi against getting your firstborn child? No, we have not collected any kids yet. But it sure was a nice demonstration of how careless we have become with user terms of software and service. It has been said that “Yes, I have read then license agreement” is the world’s biggest lie. Spot on! This was proven once again by a recent case where a Chrome extension was dragged into the spotlight accused of spying on users. Let’s first check the background. The “Webpage Screenshot” extension, which has been pulled from the Chrome Web Store, enabled users to conveniently take screenshots of web page content. It was a very popular extension with over 1,2 million users and tons of good reviews. But the problem is that the vendor seemed to get revenues by uploading user behavior, mainly visited web links, and monetizing on that data. The data upload was not very visible in the description, but the extension’s privacy policy did mention it. So the extension seemed to be acting according to what had been documented in the policy. Some people were upset and felt that they had been spied on. They installed the extension and had no clue that a screenshot utility would upload behavior data. And I can certainly understand why. But on the other hand, they did approve the user terms and conditions when installing. So they have technically given their approval to the data collection. Did the Webpage Screenshot users know what they signed up for? Let’s find out. It had 1 224 811 users when I collected this data. The question is how many of them had read the terms. You can pause here and think about it if you want to guess. The right answer follows below.   [caption id="attachment_8032" align="aligncenter" width="681"] Trying to access Webpage Screenshot gave an error in Chrome Web Store on April 7th 2015.[/caption]   The privacy policy was provided as a shortened URL which makes it possible to check its statistics. The link had been opened 146 times during the whole lifetime of the extension, slightly less than a year. Yes, only 146 times for over 1,2 million users! This means that only 0,012 % clicked the link! And the number of users who read all the way down to the data collection paragraph is even smaller. At least 99,988 % installed without reading the terms. So these figures support the claim that “I have read the terms” is the biggest lie. But they also show that “nobody reads the terms” is slightly incorrect.   Safe surfing, Micke   PS. Does F-Secure block this kind of programs? Typically no. They are usually not technically harmful, the user has installed them deliberately and we can’t really know what the user expects them to do. Or not to do. So this is not really a malware problem, it’s a fundamental problem in the business models of Internet.   Images: Screenshots from the Webpage Screenshot homepage and Chrome Web Store    

Apr 8, 2015
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Facebook, I love you, newsfeed

5 ways to take control of Facebook’s News Feed so don’t feel ‘unloved’

You should know that Facebook can play with your emotions. If you're reading this you're probably aware that your Facebook feed doesn't simply serve you the latest posts from the friends and pages you follow. Given that most of us follow hundred -- if not thousands -- of people, places and brands, a real-time feed would dramatically  change the Facebook experience. And it would likely greatly reduce engagement, which is the site's life force. But if you do know this, you may be in the minority. A new study from a team of researchers from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, California State University, Fresno and the University of Michigan found that most of a group of 40 Facebook users, 62.5 percent had no idea that their feed is filtered by the world's largest social network. And not knowing that actually seemed to have negative affects on users' psyches. “In the extreme case, it may be that whenever a software developer in Menlo Park adjusts a parameter, someone somewhere wrongly starts to believe themselves to be unloved,” the researchers wrote. The study used a tool to create an unfiltered feed that showed them what they'd been missing. While they weren't thrilled how Facebook decided which friends posts they'd see, "[m]ost came to think that the filtering and ranking software was actually doing a decent job," Fusion's Alex Madrigal writes. In 2014, Facebook partnered in an academic paper that revealed it had manipulated users feeds to adjust how many positive and negative posts they saw. It found that moods were contagious. Positive feeds led to positive posts and vice versa. Users agree to such manipulation in Facebook's terms and conditions -- which you clearly know by heart -- but the revelation still led to a huge backlash. In the recent study, participants found that being aware they were being fed stories by Facebook's algorithm "bolstered overall feelings of control on the site" and led to more active engagement. So if you didn't know a formula was guiding your interactions before you probably already feel better. But there's more you can do if you want to make sure Facebook is showing you the things you actually want to see. 1. Be proactive. Go directly to the pages of the people, companies and artists you want to see more of then engage. Like posts or comments. Comment yourself. Share posts. Facebook's motivation is to keep you on the site as long as humanly possible--and it's very good at it. If it's not showing something you'd enjoy seeing, it probably would like to. So let it know. 2. Choose "Most Recent" posts.     In the left column of your home page, click on the arrow next to "News Feed". If you select "Most Recent", your experience will likely be less filtered. Though you still should not to expect to see every post that ends up on the site. 3. Go to News Feed Preferences. Click on the down arrow that's on every Facebook page and select News Feed Preferences. The goal here is to unfollow anything you're sick of seeing so you get more of what you do want. Or re-follow people or things you've missed. 4. Tell your feed what you like.         Facebook wants you to take an active role in adjusting your algorithm. That's why every post in your feed has a dim down arrow that you can select. If something really bugs you, tell Facebook you don't want to see and Unfollow the person or page. If you really love it, you can "Turn on notifications" which guarantees that every future post ends up in your notifications -- that little globe on the top navigation. Your notifications can act as a secondary newsfeed to make sure you don't miss posts from your favorites. 5. Switch to Twitter and Tweetdeck. If you want complete control over your newsfeed, you're never going to get it on Facebook. Even Twitter is moving away from this method of feeding content for a pretty simple reason, it needs more engagement. Given that Facebook and Twitter employee dozens if not hundred of programmers and experts paid to make their sites captivate you, they figure they're better at it than you. If you want to prove them wrong, Twitter's Tweetdeck app, which works in your browser, still offers unmediated newsfeeds so you can feed your own brain. Twitter isn't quite as personal or ubiquitous as Facebook -- but it is the next best thing. Try it out and see if you feel more loved. Cheers, Jason [Photo by Geraint Rowland | Flickr]

Mar 31, 2015
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