the lede Media

Identity Crisis

The bystanders affected by Facebook’s security measures

By chandni doulatramani | 1 October 2017

Isis Singh, a 28-year-old woman born to a Punjabi Hindu family in Delhi, has a first name that is about as rare as her surname is common. Her family named her “Isis” after the Egyptian goddess of fertility and womanhood.

So, in October 2015, when Singh saw her first name splashed across television news shows in upper-case letters, she was confused. She soon learnt that the channels were using “ISIS” to refer to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: a violent extremist organisation that had beheaded a group of Christians in Syria who refused to convert to Islam.

Things soon started changing for Singh. Friends joked about how she was wreaking havoc around the world. Some of her colleagues teased her about her name, once even pasting a cutout from a magazine story about ISIS on her desk. Singh told me that nowadays, people sometimes ask her if she is considering changing her name.

However, one of the most dramatic events that happened to Singh concerning her name took place online. About three months after ISIS had executed the group of Christians, Singh tried to log on to her Facebook profile only to find herself blocked. She saw that she had received a message from “The Facebook Team” via the site’s messaging platform, saying, “Hi, if Isis Singh is the name you go by in real life, please confirm your name.”

The company asked her to send copies of valid government documents that showed a photograph of her face and her full legal name. She sent a scanned photocopy of her PAN card, but Facebook rejected it, saying, “We’re currently unable to confirm your name. This might be because your name doesn’t follow our name standards.” She submitted more documentation, but received replies saying her identity still could not be confirmed.

This communication with Facebook lasted for nearly ten days. Terrified at the thought of losing all her data and connections on the site, Singh kept refreshing the log-in page. But nothing changed, and she was beginning to lose patience.

“Just unblock my account. Just because my name is Isis does not mean I’m a terrorist,” Singh wrote in a message to the company. “That stupid group came into existence 2 years back. I’ve been on Facebook for way longer. This is just stupid.”

Isis Singh is far from being the only one to have faced this type of trouble on Facebook. Her story, and those of others who have had similar experiences, raise important questions about the power that large corporations have over our online identities.

“Facebook uses algorithms that are built to match predefined set of keywords with profile names of its users,” Saket Modi, an ethical hacker and the chief executive of a Delhi-based cybersecurity company, explained when I spoke with him over the phone in July. “If the word ‘Isis’ is one of them, then that would explain why her account was blocked.”

Singh’s experience is shared by many who share her first name. In November 2015, Isis Anchalee, a San Francisco-based engineer, was temporarily blocked from Facebook. According to reports, although she claimed the block was related to her first name, the company responded that it had occurred because her account was reported as fake or offensive. She regained access to it within a day, after she tweeted about the incident several times. Later, in 2016, Isis Thomas, who lived in Bristol, England, was blocked from her Facebook account. According to news reports, she claimed that the company had told her that “Isis is not allowed,” since it “didn’t comply with policy.” In response to a query I sent Facebook about Isis Thomas’s case, a company spokesperson said, “She had successfully cleared the name verification process and could use her account.” The spokesperson would not, however, give me details on how long the process took.

Such incidents have become commonplace enough for people to call for widespread change in the usage of the term “ISIS.” About a year ago, an online petition exhorted the media to begin referring to ISIS by another of its accepted names, ISIL—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. “If your name is Isis or have a daughter or family member named Isis, you can connect with others who are also facing the unnecessary backlash of this irresponsible choice by the media,” the petition, which garnered over 65,000 signatures, read.

Although Singh was able to provide Facebook with documentary proof of her name, not all people who use the site would have been able to meet such a demand. Many Facebook users, particularly those who have experienced marginalisation and violence—transgender and queer people, as well as survivors of domestic abuse, for example—may only be able to safely use the site with false profile names. The company’s “real-name policy,” which mandates that people use the names that they are most commonly known by, can result in the removal of accounts whose owners are in such vulnerable positions—pushing people off the site who may have otherwise found a helpful community there.

In July, I wrote to Facebook to ask about Isis Singh’s case, as well as about the company’s general philosophy on privacy and security. I received a response from Carson Dalton, who worked as a Facebook spokesperson out of the company’s Gurugram office. “There are occasions when we ask someone to verify the name they are using on Facebook,” he wrote. “People use their names on Facebook, not random screen names or Internet handles. This means people know who they are communicating with and can feel comfortable sharing and connecting. We are constantly improving how we implement our names policy so that we can provide a safe and secure experience.” Dalton did not comment on Singh’s case.

Rahul Matthan, a lawyer who is a partner at the India-based law firm Trilegal, believes that privacy can be maintained on the internet at large, but when a single entity has so much control, it can get compromised. “Facebook is a large country. It has people from all over the world in various locations,” he told me over the phone in July. Matthan suggests that people and businesses reduce their dependency on Facebook—whether as a marketing platform, a means to store information or a network for correspondence. He does not personally depend on the site, opting to use private chat platforms for communication.

Isis Singh’s Facebook account was finally reinstated in March 2016, two months after it had been blocked. But her trust in digital companies remains shaken. When Singh regained access to her account, she immediately backed up all her profile’s data and uploaded it to the cloud-based storage service Google Drive. “I’m hoping they don’t screw me over,” she said. “But I think the next betrayal will be from Google.”

Chandni Doulatramani is an independent journalist based in Kolkata. She previously worked with Reuters and Mint.

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