A wooden duster came flying at 11-year-old me. I had misspelled my Venn diagram as “when diagram”, and the math teacher was teaching me an important lesson. Although not officially a part of the syllabus, my place within the classroom was clear. I was, as she called me, a pedhi.1 The front row benches belonged to the “toppers”, and I was already ashamed to open my lunch box.2
Filled with neurotypical upper caste3 teachers4 in authority, the school was a microcosm of the world outside.5 But there was an old Dell desktop there. We all took turns to use it. It ran on a pirated version of the Windows XP operating system. Once a week, our computer teacher told us to make dummy entries into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. We also copied content from our textbooks to create slideshows for our science teacher. And, on a lucky day, we even got to make the "Thank you" slide at the end that would swirl and disappear.
Orkut scraps, Winamp Media Player, Public Exam results loading slowly, and an ugly dick pic. The computer, to my 16-year-old self, was a portal. Eventually, I learned. To receive "scraps" and send more out. For a seamless listening experience, hit "loop" (on the latest Backstreet Boys' song). For exam results and dick pics look away, breathe, and click the red "x" on the top left corner of the screen before paying twenty rupees6 and leaving the cyber cafe.
Part of a generation old enough to somewhat remember life before the Internet but young enough to have grown up with social media, I watched the convergence of my physical and cyber selves in real-time. Barely passing the arithmetic exams and without any vocabulary to articulate the amalgamations of my gender, disability, and caste locations, I was faced with something my mother and grandmother were not.7 But, three years into high school, I’d tamed Microsoft Office. A certified computer user, I was ready for college, equipped with the best sedentary, non-contextual education my parents could afford.
I quit my engineering degree course two classes into Computer Programming. But my computer continues to make life easier. Faster. For example, to write this piece, I spoke all my thoughts into a recorder app, played it slowly to type it all down (Comic Sans MS, font size 16),8 ran a spell check, forced my words into coherent shapes for the reader, printed it out and made my computer read it back to me while I marked all the edits needed on paper. Line by line, I copied the edits back onto the computer with one hand, printed paper in the other. Can things be faster? Sure. For a neurotypical person who owns a printer. But I am grateful to have a machine that holds my thoughts as I force them into neurotypical ways. I can talk to it and have it talk back to me.
Can things be faster? Sure. For a neurotypical person who owns a printer. But I am grateful to have a machine that holds my thoughts as I force them into neurotypical ways. I can talk to it and have it talk back to me.
A human rights lawyer by training, I am now a public policy researcher at a techno-feminist collective in India. As part of my job, I research laws and policies around technology and make policy submissions. Also, as part of the job, I (had to) give up my cognitive bias that my digital life is a bit less real than ‘real life’. They are separate. Yes. And equally real. Anybody from Mysore9 who has boarded a bus here knows this feeling. The visceral feeling of being watched. The aunty judging you with just her eyes (does it matter why), the conductor’s body pressing over you as you reach inside your pocket for ticket money, the man with the window side seat unapologetically staring till the bus stops and the next girl enters the overcrowded bus. Not very different from Uber knowing where I go, Swiggy10 knowing what I eat and Facebook knowing all my friends. Google knows every click I make. Surveillance11 is the business model of the internet.12 And the patriarchy’s favourite tool. With constant data being produced of the most intimate aspects of my life - the sanitary pads I use, the phone calls I make, the brand of condoms I prefer, the distinction between my physical and virtual body is irrelevant.13 My data, emanating from my body and my safety intertwine everywhere.
Before I could start my job, my colleague, who is also a mentor, gave me a series of digital security trainings. From our many conversations, I had understood the need to practise digital hygiene. But the thought of going through digital security trainings overwhelmed me. An engineer could handle a looming set of complicated, inaccessible, and uninteresting software (and maybe coding?). Not me. The things she taught me were graspable and sometimes, surprisingly simple. Like using Cryptpad instead of Google Docs, and the inevitable switch to Signal.14 Other things have taken some getting used to BigBlueButton, instead of Skype, has been especially hard as my brain needed time to get used to a new interface with similar colours. Some of it has made life easier, like Keepass, which makes and remembers all my passwords now. I use the VPN subscription my mentor got me because the bear15 is cute. ProtonMail and Tutanota have been challenging to navigate with their tiny and dull letters. They have managed to make me hate email more.
The Indian Supreme Court, in its remarkable judgement of Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of India,16 declared the right to privacy as intrinsic and instrumental to human dignity. The 9-judge bench, identifying privacy of information as a subset of the fundamental right to privacy, held, to express ourselves freely, inside our homes, and, ultimately, to further ourselves as equal citizens, the promise of privacy is essential.17 Outside the court, however, there is no collective access to the knowledge and vocabularies of digital safety, gender, and surveillance. In the world around me, the existence, quality, and safety of our digital lives depend on many things.18 Most people who use mobile phones do not know how to be safe on a very public internet without completely shutting off from the world wide web. Even as the coronavirus pandemic drove life online while simultaneously showcasing India’s deep digital divide,19 few of us have had the access to cognition to ask these questions. But I still love the Internet. It is a great place. In some of its corners, unlike my classroom,20 Ragi Mudhe21 is as celebrated as “Pure Veg Puliogare,22 and a "Pedhi" can write an article.
The digital security trainings I received have nurtured my agency to use the Internet as a transformative public space.23 Unfortunately, I have discovered no magical add-on that makes the Internet infrastructurally safe for all. We still need an internet where all its users are protected by explicitly feminist regulations passed by the State, and technology companies do not put consumers under surveillance advertising by default. But, on my phone and laptop, within my sphere of influence, it has made it possible for me to be safer.
Unfortunately, I have discovered no magical add-on that makes the Internet infrastructurally safe for all. We still need an internet where all its users are protected by explicitly feminist regulations passed by the State, and technology companies do not put consumers under surveillance advertising by default.
In a court of law, you are innocent until proven guilty. When information is power and data is “oil”, it is the opposite online. Recently, 300 phone numbers, including those of two serving ministers in India were discovered as potential targets of cyber-surveillance24 via the Pegasus spyware.25 In response, a lot of public discourse made the “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" argument, the logic of which is tired, old, specious and dangerous. Bathing isn’t illegal, but nobody wants a camera installed in their bathroom. Likewise, there is information I give to my bank that I wouldn't want a hacker to see.
Privacy is a social good, not just as an individual one. It has long-term socio-legal, and human rights implications. For instance, the proposed biometric-based identification of patients (Aadhaar)26 for maintaining health records27 under the Indian government’s new National Digital Health Mission.28 Against all tenets of medical ethics, a patient would have to inevitably give details of their life to avail of health care services.29 The very basic understanding of patient confidentiality is compromised in case the patient’s name, address, and health records such as X-ray reports, blood test reports, among others, get leaked. With a digital trail of the choices exercised by us for our bodies under the State’s vision mixed with social stigma, we will stop ourselves from approaching a doctor for an STD test or abortion. This impact is not just on privacy but on a broad range of rights30 that form the substratum of a democratic society31 – and indeed on autonomy and freedom in almost every aspect of our lives.32
When it is unpacked and its underlying assumptions examined, the “nothing to hide” argument suggests we are inherently worthy of suspicion. And that only criminals desire privacy. Another hole in it: there is little evidence that indiscriminate mass data collection leads to our collective good.33 We don't know if we’ve got nothing to fear. In the absence of adequate safeguards and protections, data once collected can be used, misused, distributed, and stored in perpetuity. It paints a dispassionate, automated picture34 of who you are, what you do, what you believe in, where you go, and with whom you spend time. In the public square of the Internet, privacy is not about hiding, it is about autonomy, power, and control. It is our ability to decide how we present ourselves to the world. And to be safe while we do so. Much like the unsafe roads of my city, I am not yet free to enjoy the wilderness of the web.
One thing the coronavirus pandemic35 taught us: we are only as safe as the rest of us are. Another: we have a duty to participate in each other's safety. Both hold good for our digital lives. Slowly and together, we can build layers of safety around ourselves and our information. There are tools for it. And if something doesn't feel good, we can always reset it. Periodically changing my passwords, checking the privacy configurations of the accounts I use, and using good passwords have been about my own behaviours than the technology itself36 There are customisable answers. And room for non-techies.
I throw a good Yoko Geri Kekomi.37 I am proud of it, but it will not end patriarchal violence. Me learning digital security has not ended surveillance capitalism. I am still constantly measuring how much safety I’ve got. Before speaking, before walking on the road, before making a new friend, before posting something on the internet, before and after dreaming. But I have created a space within my computer where “feminism” comes with many spellings. It is a place of my own. A place where I can create a bit more privacy and dignity38 than the world is generally ready to give me. It started with a simple change of heart that safety, a fundamental human right,39 is attainable. And a change of Settings.
I have created a space within my computer where “feminism” comes with many spellings. It is a place of my own. A place where I can create a bit more privacy and dignity than the world is generally ready to give me.
- 1. Kannada (Dravidian language spoken predominantly by the people of Karnataka in the southwestern region of India) word that translates to “stupid” in English
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