Indian culture normalizes espionage. It affects our view of digital privacy


The curious neighbor, pictured with a pair of binoculars, standing in questionable moral shadows (of a curtain), searching for gossip and information, has long been a mainstay of Indian media. This trope is emblematic of the Indian sensibility around privacy – or rather the lack of it.

“From the widespread acceptance of men and the censorship of elders ‘watching’ women in the street, to neighbors who think nothing of socially monitoring themselves, privacy breaches are normalized or socially sanctioned in the name of protection. culture or morality, or the honor of a community, ”notes Usha Raman, professor of media studies and digital culture at the University of Hyderabad.

Just as people accept seemingly harmless surveillance from family members and communities, the idea that the government is also investigating its people does not irritate us. Societal acceptance of physical surveillance leads to acceptance of privacy digitally. At the individual level, gaps in understanding privacy also impact how (little) we think about it in a digital arena. Collectively, surveillance is normalized at the national level, becoming the Achilles heel of a democracy.

A 1992 study showed that people in Southeast Asia tend to report less need for privacy than their Western counterparts. The theorist Hofstede also postulated that India is a collectivist society due to which people have more trust and faith in others. “Whether it’s people nudging each other on a crowded bus or strangers sharing bunks on a train without batting an eyelid,” Osama Manzar and Urvashi, researchers at the Digital Empowerment Foundation, wrote in an article. of 2017, “personal space is not considered important. at home or outside [in India]. “The social bond is perpetuated by unique family structures, crowded public spaces and a general understanding of sharing; social interactions therefore become of the highest priority.

This is because the radius of what Indian families consider “private” is small and a culture of submission paints demanding more space as an anomaly to Indian values. “Individual privacy has only recently been recognized in Indian society, and within families it is a very tenuous concept,” Raman notes. In other words, privacy is almost an illusion or worse, seen as an extravaganza that we don’t need.


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Rohini Lakshané, technologist and public policy researcher, has compiled a list of a few films that deepen this understanding of abusive surveillance. Mainstream films like “Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya”, “Masaan” or “Chappa Kurishu” carry the motive for surveillance – things like hidden cameras planted in bathrooms. The perpetrators of such invasions do not expose themselves to any punitive action. “In a way, these representations show a level of normalization…”, says Lakshané.

In the end, the issue of privacy is too often presented as binary. “You can have privacy or you can have security. But who does nobody ask for security? [security] for what reason? ”Raman points out.

“There are some police TV shows that show the police eavesdropping on phones or keeping tabs on an individual or families, where the police believe the person concerned is a terrorist or a criminal,” Pallavi Bedi, researcher at the Center for Internet and Society, notes. The problem, however, is that most of these thrillers fail to describe the actual procedure involved in the surveillance, leaving the legality of these operations unclear.

It doesn’t stray too far from real life. The argument of imposing surveillance in the name of national security has become an easy argument for the government.

“In the absence of adequate surveillance and safeguards, government surveillance can be used to profile people and slaughter populations or individuals that the government wants to suppress or oppress. ” The tabled the DNA bill, which should be repeated at this year’s Lok Sabha session, is a relevant example in this regard.

Interestingly, in the list of people allegedly monitored using Pegasus – spyware that can hack and even take control of smartphones – numbers of various activists, such as Umar Khalid, have been found. Research has also shown how data can be instrumentalized to influence voter perceptions, ideologies and even distort realities.

“Our general disregard for privacy and its value in our daily (offline) lives has led to a blindness to how this right to privacy is flouted by powerful actors,” adds Raman.

As a result, people do not hesitate to give information voluntarily, or to drop it without pretension, when asked. The bundle of personal information required as part of an Aadhar card, or even Aarogya Setu, is then not considered an invasion of privacy. What happens to this data or who uses it is only semantic.


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Our cultural ideas about privacy inevitably translate into a lukewarm demand for privacy and data protection laws. “In a world where we are increasingly dependent on digital services and digitized data, it is absolutely necessary to have legislation that protects the rights of citizens,” notes Rohini. It was not until 2017, barely four years ago, that the The Supreme Court recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right. “The Indian cultural context imposes challenges in understanding and implementing privacy as an intrinsic right to life and liberty,” a lawyer Noted. Even in the 2017 SC guidelines, privacy was widely presented as the “right to be left alone”.

Currently, communications surveillance takes place mainly under two laws – the Telegraph Act, 1885 (call pickup) and the Information Technology Act (monitoring of electronic communications). There are no regulations to fill the various loopholes in the two legal frameworks in order to discourage excesses.

Despite executing several transactions online, allowing servers to access our digital fingerprints, our understanding of the implications remains extremely slim; people “think this is all normal in a digital society,” Raman adds.

Such normalization of government intervention in daily life inevitably leads people to self-censor for an outside chance that the government will listen.

All of this then leads to “a culture of standardized or socially sanctioned surveillance – some researchers call it co-watch, argues Raman. This is where we forgive a lot of intrusions from our communities and where we feel guilty if we choose to stay private and not share.

Those who claim privacy are seen as particularly deviant, as privacy becomes synonymous with “secrecy,” akin to a “rebellious” teenager asking for space or deleting texts to prevent his parents from seeing him. People in power can brazenly to say things like only “bad guys” need privacy.

“People who resist such surveillance are labeled as people… who commit wrongdoing, or have skeletons in their closets, or are immoral and disreputable. I have noticed that people who oppose government surveillance are characterized as anti-nationals, terrorist sympathizers / apologists or terrorists themselves ”,Lakshané notes. In the absence of adequate surveillance and safeguards, surveillance can be used to profile individuals and as a tool of oppression.

The ‘I have nothing to hide’ argument normalizes all forms of surveillance by passing moral judgment on what people hide – insisting that no harm will be done to people if privacy is violated . The idea of ​​consent is sorely lacking: people should choose to share what is going on inside their home or on their skin.

Privacy is called a bug in Indian culture. In 2018, for example, a lawyer representing the central government Noted the futility of privacy in India and how Indians cannot “import” conceptions of privacy.

The problem with denying privacy as an alien concept, or a colonial hangover, is what leads to seeing it as a frivolity. Most Indian languages, note Manzar and Urvashi, have no word for privacy; what they come closest to understanding is through perceptions of things such as “shame”. Such gaps in understanding point to a larger crisis of personal identity, socio-cultural values ​​and national identity.

“Before the databases are linked, before there is interoperability of government, corporate and legal and financial data, we need to stop and make sure that better protections are in place, that we have the opportunity. to decide what we share and to what extent we share that, ”says Usha Raman.

These questions must be explored until exhaustion. What is at stake is our power to define ourselves in the most fundamental way. There are too many issues for us not to fight for this right to privacy and really explain what it means.


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