I was in tenth standard in my school in Delhi when my parents and grandparents were shocked that our landline phone bill was regularly exceeding the normal limits. To ensure they were not being duped, they asked the telecom company to provide their calling history. Little did they expect that their teenage daughters (my elder sister and I) were indeed making those additional phone calls. The detailed call history had information of the phone number dialled, timing and duration of each call, which was enough to reveal my sister’s romance with her then-boyfriend. I mention this story for two reasons: First, to contextualise that even before mobile phones, Facebook and social media came into our lives, landline call records were maintained by the telecom companies. Today, this kind of users’ metadata is routinely collected and monetised by social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. The second reason is because it annoyed me and my sister that it was so simple to access the call history. It was a breach of privacy of those whose numbers appeared in the call records, but for me it was an extension of parents’ controlling behaviour in an atmosphere where girls and young women must be punished for having a boyfriend.
In my own experience of growing up in Delhi, I did not have privacy for any kind of intimacy with romantic/sexual partners. I was expected to leave my personal diary and photos in the open while trusting nobody will snoop around; and could not talk on landline/mobile phone without being overheard in a very middle-class ‘joint family’ household. I gained ownership over the room for spatial privacy at the age of twenty when my sister moved cities.
My experience of being watched and controlled is not very different from that of other young women of similar socio-economic backgrounds and age. But women from lower socio-economic backgrounds living in urban slums have even lesser access to privacy within households. In South Asian culture, marriage and biological family are supposed to be the central aspects of a woman’s life, and we are socialised to live in joint families with strong dependence on communities where individual privacy is proactively discouraged. The imposition of patriarchal norms that control women’s freedoms also restrict their access to public and private spaces.
As a result of this lack of privacy, young and queer people carve out spaces for intimacy in nooks and corners of public spaces, like movie halls, parks, and parking areas. Negotiating for private space means being compelled to lie to enjoy some sort of privacy within households. For instance, queer persons lie to their biological family for survival, because of fear of violence. Whereas, other young people lie to stay on call with a romantic partner, because expecting parents to knock on the door before entering the room would mean defiance.
In South Asian culture, marriage and biological family are supposed to be the central aspects of a woman’s life, and we are socialised to live in joint families with strong dependence on communities where individual privacy is proactively discouraged.
In majority contexts, a room of one’s own does not exist, but the ubiquity of the digital in the lives of Indian citizens across socio-economic classes complicates the issue of privacy. Media reports, academic work, and my own experience of working with young women from bastis (slums) have shown that even those living in poor economic conditions where households do not have spatial privacy or toilets, have smartphones. Therefore, talking about privacy without talking about the digital is incomplete today.
Researching digital privacy
For a project on the digital (geo)politics of privacy and WhatsApp in India, I conducted in-depth interviews with 34 citizens to understand to what extent digital privacy is important to people on digital messaging platforms, what privacy means to people, how it is narrated and discussed, and what actions people take with regards to protecting their privacy in digital communications. A purposive sampling method was used for recruiting the participants. The sample included a heterogenous group of participants from different religions, gender, caste, class, sexual orientation and age. I approached the participants through my own network which means that in some cases, I knew them and had a level of rapport already. This also means that as a researcher, I was an insider in the lives of participants I already knew and an outsider in the lives of those I did not know. Depending on the comfort of the participants, interviews were conducted either in Hindi or English. All the participants were given a pseudonym to maintain anonymity.
Translating privacy, linguistically and socially
In Hindi, the literal translation of privacy is gopniyata or nijta. But the challenge with this translation is that it sounds technical and Sanskritised and is not used very conversationally in our everyday lives. I encountered this in my interview with Shishir* who worked as a driver. He believed in minding his own business with a motto to focus on his job and earnings as that is all that counts to live a peaceful life, according to him. He used WhatsApp only for communicating with his employer, and his mobile usage was limited to watching YouTube (as a replacement of television in his household). He shared that neither has his privacy been invaded by anyone nor has he invaded anyone’s privacy.
While all his personality traits alluded to him being a private person, it was surprising that in the entire interview, he used his own terms to describe that. The words he used instead were, “kissi ko dakhal nahi dena” (why should there be an interference of others), “main toh middleclass hun, kaam karta hun, do roti mil gaya, zindagi chal raha hai” (I am a middle-class man, I have a job to meet my basic needs, that is how my life has been). “Dakhal nahi dena” (non-interference of others) is how he described privacy for him. In the context of digital privacy, Shishir focused on an individual’s privacy and did not refer to breach of privacy by tech companies, he instead articulated it as companies keeping the users’ data; how and what tech companies do with that data was unknown to him. An important thing to highlight from his articulation and experiences is that he called non-interference of others as a way of life for him without self-identifying as a private person. Therefore, getting across to non-English speaking people who may not self-identify as private emerges as a methodological challenge for privacy researchers.
Privacy matters, more for some than others
Privacy is a fundamental right of every Indian, protected under the Constitution. But belonging to a 79.8% Hindu majority in India, I was conscious of the fact that my experiences of privacy will be different from the Muslim population in the country. My feminist training made me a bit sceptical about the exercise of the right to privacy as the most significant right as a woman.
Issues such as domestic violence and marital rape have been pushed into the realm of private sphere by patriarchal forces. Justice C. Harishankar, a Delhi High Court judge defended marital rape in his judgement in 2022 saying marital rape is “antithetical to the very institution of marriage.” While the introduction of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act in 2005 transformed domestic violence into a public concern (even though socially and in practice it continues to be considered a private matter), marital rape is still an exception in the sexual violence laws because marriage is considered too private and sacrosanct for the state intervention. Women are coerced into the private sphere when they are subjected to violence through patriarchal practices aimed at controlling their mobility, access to the public sphere etc. This has led to feminists demanding and fighting for women’s right to reclaim public spaces and be able to speak up about oppression.
Belonging to a 79.8% Hindu majority in India, I was conscious of the fact that my experiences of privacy will be different from the Muslim population in the country.
Interviewing marginalised citizens, especially Muslim women, made me see the significance of privacy in negotiating space for oneself in everyday life and for claiming freedom from surveillance in the home and outside it. Raima*, a 36-year-old public health professional, is from a village in Meerut, and lived in Delhi as a single woman against the wishes of her parents. She felt grateful for having a Hindu name, as it would not reveal her identity as a Muslim woman, and protected her from violence and discrimination against minorities. She constantly feared that her way of living and dressing, her photos or other information that she shares online might reach her family in Meerut. It could lead to violence from them, because her family thought that women who use the internet do it to attract men or for sex work. It was a battle for her to hide her social media presence from her family. In this context she opined on the significance of the privacy framework and its limitations in her life.
She told me, “If I am sure that nobody is going to see me where I don't want to be seen, then privacy gives me a lot of agency to do things. But there is always this fear, especially in online spaces, that for the apps to work, you have to give permission for accessing your photos, location etc.” She added, “The Indian constitution gave you the fundamental right to be private. But keeping in mind the society that we live in, it's always a threat. Privacy is very personal, and people can use so much against you. So, it is a crime in India to breach privacy but there is no proper system. The systems are poor. Those who experience [violation of privacy], they just give up.”
Raima articulated privacy as an important need for Muslim women in patriarchal and Hindu-dominated Indian spaces, where our existence is not only limited to physical space, but also the digital that records our actions, histories and footprints. While Raima felt confident that privacy is her constitutional right, she feared that there are multiple limitations in implementation of this right in our socio-legal context where community members, tech companies and the government are a threat to privacy. This sentiment was also echoed by Arman*, a Muslim 23-year-old law student, who studied at the Jamia Milia University in Delhi and lived in Jamia.
He said, “Privacy is important because it allows me to have a space for holistic development as an individual. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I want to do without the fear of being judged, or without the fear of being analysed. So, from that perspective it is important. It allows me a space to develop my individuality, to do things which I wouldn’t dare to do in front of anyone else.”
Arman too felt that while privacy in everyday life is an important need for living with freedom, it would not protect him as a minority especially if the state tries to track him. He was most worried about the potential violence from the police and government. He added, “I am worried about what they [government] might plant. So, there is not anything that they can find and put me up with regards to something… The only thing they can do is they might be able to plant a lot of stuff. That is what worries me, not as much as what they may see.”
Not having a legislative framework for privacy in the country is another limitation he identified with respect to protection of his right.
These narratives challenged my biases against the right to privacy framework and affirmed its usefulness. Agency, freedom, control, mental well-being, and fundamental rights were important positives that my interviewees identified for why privacy matters. More importantly, to address the discrimination and violence experienced by Muslim citizens, the right to privacy discourse requires that the law takes cognisance of these vulnerabilities and is adept in dealing with Indian Muslims’ breach of privacy. Since political activists like Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam are in jail under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for dissenting against the state, there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation amongst citizens. This makes privacy from the state even more important for Indian Muslims.
I am worried about what they [government] might plant. So, there is not anything that they can find and put me up with regards to something… The only thing they can do is they might be able to plant a lot of stuff. That is what worries me, not as much as what they may see. - Arman, a Muslim, 23-year-old law student
It also challenged my own experiences of privilege since I never had to hide my religion for my protection. Interestingly, even though I thought I am an insider in Raima’s life who I have been friends with for many years, the differences in our experiences based on religion made me rethink about the categories of the researcher being insider or outsider. By virtue of the same gender, residing in the same city and knowing each other personally, I might be categorised as an insider, but my privileged experiences make me an outsider. Therefore, I found myself being neither fully insider nor fully outsider in such situations.
In my interview with Ibadat*, a Muslim 23-year-old law student, who I was meeting for the first time, she stressed on using Telegram for her “private conversations”. When the researcher is new and an outsider for the participants, breaking the silence around sexuality related euphemisms can be difficult. In that context Ibadat said, “I have no basis to say this but I know that Telegram is probably more trustworthy regarding the privacy because I have some friends who say that if I have to talk about or send something specific like controversial videos to each other, not politically controversial, just [intimate], they would do it on Telegram. And they've been doing that since a long time so that's how I learned that it is a much more reliable place to do these things. So that is what I use Telegram for.”
I found using words such as “intimate photos or intimacy” instead of “sexting or sexual” more conversational and comfortable for breaking the silence especially when I was an outsider.
Privacy and identity
For individuals from the LGBTQI+ community, the digital is a significant aspect of their lives for exploring their own sexuality and gender, building their community, exploring dating etc. Manohar*, a 25-year-old bisexual man, told me privacy was important when it came to his sexuality, especially because he was not out as a bisexual to his family living in rural Haryana. But he used digital apps such as Grindr to build his community and did not worry much about the app mining his data.
Similar sentiments towards the digital were reflected by other LGBTQI+ identifying persons. Hiba*, a 33-year-old queer person, is also not out to her parents, so she prioritises maintaining her privacy from her parents. But since she lives alone with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), her WhatsApp and Instagram usage is high, and she does not bother using many alternative options like Telegram or Signal. When I asked her why she did not think about using other apps, Hiba expressed indifference towards privacy protocols of communication apps and digital platforms. She said, “Sometimes very vocal activists choose to be on Signal and Telegram because of the sensitive work they do. But the same activists are very vocal on Twitter, very anti-state on Twitter, right? So, it’s not like Signal and Telegram will obliterate your conversations, and the state does not know what your stand is on Twitter. Let us be realistic about all these platforms we are on. You are ordering something on Amazon, all these big [and small] companies are mining your data. So, I am just saying, you don’t even need an Aadhaar number, you have a phone number, that’s enough for you to leave digital footprints there.”
Those who are more tech savvy, preferred switching to Signal or Telegram, at least for sensitive conversations. Sim*, a 30-year-old non-binary person for whom the internet was an indispensable part of growing-up queer, said, “I am an early adopter in many ways. I used Signal when it was still called Red Phone. It was a long time ago. I had tried it out but found it very clunky. I did not use that much because no one was there to talk to. But then after some time when they started improving and started putting some more money in it, more people started joining it. So, I re-joined it to text sexual partners and dating app persons. Then it completely went into work as well because you need secure spaces for work now.” They added, “I continue to use WhatsApp because a lot of vendors are there. When I did not want to step out during Covid, this was the easy way to communicate.”
Most participants said that it is common to see targeted advertisements on the internet based on verbal conversations they are having in their offline life or based on text messages exchanged on WhatsApp.
Madhur*, a 22-year-old man who had Gynecomastia explained his discomfort with targeted advertisements. “So, you know if I browse the internet for TV options because I want to buy a TV and then I am shown a TV ad, it is okay, I will watch that ad... It’s better than seeing an ad that is completely irrelevant to you. Sometimes that is weird also. But let’s say you are talking about lingerie or something and those ads come up on your phone, my mother also asks me why my Cricbuzz app is full of bra ads? I tell her I don’t know, but I know the real logic behind it.” He acknowledged that both his mother’s actions and targeted advertisement breach his privacy.
Another participant, Ipsita* who is 25-year-old echoed the same sentiment. “People my age are dealing with similar kinds of mental health triggers in the pandemic like relationship issues, job or parents. Instagram has started suggesting posts based on such mental health triggers because it is also listening to us. It does get annoying but now my friends and I joke about it. You had a fight with your boyfriend, wait for two hours, Instagram will console you.” Even though there is no proof that social media apps listen to its users, companies use black boxed technology to intricately track and analyse users’ online activities, and then show ads to them. When I asked why they continued to use these apps, the answer was standard. Refusing to use these applications makes one not be able to get the communications services needed or miss out on opportunities etc. But the dominant feeling amongst interviewees was that the social media companies only care about their profits more than users’ privacy.
Caring about privacy in the research context
Even though there is no proof that social media apps listen to its users, companies use black boxed technology to intricately track and analyse users’ online activities, and then show ads to them.
During my interview with Manohar*, who I connected with through a queer friend, I was curiously questioned by him whether I am from the community too. I smiled and said, ‘yes’. He enquired about my personal life which made me uncomfortable at the time, but I wondered later what caused the discomfort. I regretted not sharing parts about my life, especially as someone who constantly reflects on her positionality and questions methods of researching by ‘keeping boundaries’ between the researcher and research subjects. Keeping boundaries between the researcher and subjects has a casteist connotation in India. In this context, it was not the caste but sexuality in question. The sudden scanner on me took me by surprise and I failed to share back with him enough from my life. I met Manohar again outside the research setting and opened up about my life. He listened to me with a smile, and I was happy that I could turn from being a complete outsider to a partial insider in his life.
In another instance, Pramila*, a 71-year-old Christian woman, invited her colleague to share with me about the financial fraud the colleague had faced. She and her colleague seemed very perturbed by growing digitalisation and surveillance by the government. She asked me why the youth are not protesting the Indian government for using Pegasus on journalists, activists and opposition leaders. Her question was well-grounded, if the government can institutionally legitimise the breach of privacy, how will it not give communities and people the entitlement in disrespecting others’ privacy. While Pramila and her colleague knew there is no easy answer to why there are no protests, I later mulled over how complex the issue of activism and privacy from the state is. I would like for us to think more about it. Does it need for social activists and social movements to have strategies such as street protests to respond to surveillance-based practices and technologies used by the state?
In this article I have attempted to highlight methodological challenges of researching privacy in India. Literal translations of privacy do not work for getting across to non-English persons. Therefore, it is important for researchers and trainers to have a language that will work as per people’s contexts and realities.
Moralistic messaging of ‘do not use digital platforms’ may not be the solution as one size does not fit all. There is an indispensable value of digital platforms in the queer community for self-exploration, community building, dating etc.
I have also brought to light privacy concerns that the participants are dealing with. While telecom companies have traditionally maintained call records of the users, routine collection, and trading of users’ metadata by companies today, raise issues of digital privacy in India where data protection legislation doesn’t exist. Interviews highlighted privacy concerns that Muslim citizens have in a growing digital, Hindu-dominated society. There is a general discomfort towards targeted advertising on the internet and feeling watched by tech companies through blanket permissions that apps demand in order for them to work. Moralistic messaging of ‘do not use digital platforms’ may not be the solution as one size does not fit all. There is an indispensable value of digital platforms in the queer community for self-exploration, community building, dating etc. The absence of a legislative framework on privacy further poses a threat to people’s freedoms to exercise their rights.
In an atmosphere where the state attempts to intimidate citizens into silence by arresting political activists, and itself breaches citizens’ privacy with the use of Pegasus, privacy is not an individual responsibility but a political question today.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
This research is part of a larger project on WhatsApp and the (geo)politics of digital privacy led by Philippa Williams, Queen Mary University of London and Lipika Kamra O.P. Jindal Global University. Shruti Arora led the data-collection for the study with citizens and privacy/digital rights experts. It was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and an award made to Philippa Williams. For more information, see Whatsapppolitics.com