As offline protests continue against rigging in the polls, social media in Pakistan has also been taken by a storm. So enraged are voters and supporters, that they have been making use of every opportunity that presents itself to report it. Which is great. However, impulse sometimes leads us to make errors in judgment.

The ptivotes.com fiasco is a classic example of the danger of things going viral, but mostly the unrestrained approach of clicking send without verifying and eagerly divulging personal information. Here’s what happened. SMSes and Facebook post/status shares of the following started doing the rounds:

Everyone who had a vote and was voting for PTI, go to ptivotes.com Enter your name, your designated NA, eg NA-48, and enter your CNIC number. The form will be converted into a petition and sent to ECP. Spread the word.

Upon receiving this message, red flags and alarm bells should have been the immediate response. But not for most people. So enthusiastic were they to register their protest in any form, they willingly entered the information asked of them, before first verifying whether this was an official site or not.

Later in the day, the website was taken down and the database made it into the hands of PTI officials. Supporters were instructed by Awab Alvi and Asad Umar to refrain from entering their personal information on the site. Twitter account @PTIofficial also tweeted: http://Ptivotes.com is not an official initiative of PTI, please don’t give personal data to this website until further notice.

The enthusiasm and zeal to lodge a protest is understandable, but people need to make a practice of stopping, thinking, verifying and then providing personal information. The same goes for announcing such methods of registering one’s protest. To those requesting the data, ask yourself: Are you authorized to collect this data and are you capable of keeping it secure so it is not misused? To those volunteering their information, it is always good to be suspicious of the person asking you for this information. Why do they want it and what will they do with it? And, most importantly, do they have the authority to ask for it? Because, remember, once out there, you don’t know where your information goes, who has access to it, and what they use it for.

For a moment, imagine what the flip side could be. That it was not a friend, supporter or party member receiving your information but someone who wished to identify supporters with a malicious intent.

The case in point reveals our general attitude towards sharing of information and lack of cautiousness or reluctance when sharing  it with others. That is the first step to privacy violation – willingly submitting your personal information without questioning. And, ironically, you yourself are the violator.

While an honest mistake, we found this to be reminiscent of a social experiment Bolo Bhi conducted at a slot allotted to us during Xenith Digital’s Social Media Baithak held at T2F. Before we began our session, we placed questionnaires on each chair. We requested audience members to take the first 10 minutes to fill out the information and hand it back to us. On the form, we had fields such as CNIC, phone number, house address etc. As soon as the first participant was ready to hand back the filled out form, we stopped and asked: do you trust us with your information? Why are you giving it to us? Just because we asked you? Of course we did not collect the forms, we asked the audience members to make sure they kept them and took it with them when they left.

Sometimes we are too intimidated to think or question. But toughen up because it works. Many of our readers who have been to the US or Indian embassy would’ve surely have been stopped by men in civilian clothes, claiming to be from intelligence agencies, approaching every visitor and asking for personal information. How many of you ever stopped and asked the person to prove his identity before proceeding to fill him on all your personal details? Some people we know did. And so when the third time he was asked to prove his identity, the distressed officer responded: please, if any of your friends or relatives plan to come to the embassy, tell them I really am from an agency.

Your information is yours. Sometimes you are required to provide it. But verify when the request is legal and when it is not. And even then, be aware of how it is to be received, handled, secured and transferred.

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