खबर लहरिया Blog Deep impact: COVID-19, surveillance technology and marginalised identities

Deep impact: COVID-19, surveillance technology and marginalised identities

This essay is the culmination of a special collaboration between Khabar Lahariya and the Internet Democracy Project, that aimed to bring ground realities relating to technology use and related surveillance during COVID-19 to the forefront. It also sought to highlight the challenges surrounding current response mechanisms to the pandemic that are centered on technology.

At one point, the word ‘lockdown’ implied stasis, inertia, and inactivity. Now, six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world seems to be whizzing ahead, albeit from within the confines of our four walls. Digital India has made us denizens of the future, whether we like it or not. With over 560 million Internet users, India is the second-largest online market in the world, ranked behind only China. Further, this Internet use is not merely limited to the elite; rural India is slowly catching up, with statistics showing that there were 290 million Internet users in rural India in 2019, compared to the 337 million urban Internet users. The incursions of technology into all corners of our country has begun to blur boundaries between urban and rural, private and public, individual and community, work and home: surveillance drones, online universities, flurries of news at our fingertips—the year 2020 is here. And while it feels more like Orwell than Star Trek, more like Huxley than The Jetsons, we reported live from the hinterlands of Bundelkhand to check how India’s rural denizens are faring in this Brave New World. Join us as we dive into all aspects of technological surveillance on the ground in rural Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh during the COVID-19 pandemic, with stories gathered from the lived experiences of marginalised communities. We explore how the axes of caste, class, gender, and literacy play out in our contemporary digital regime in rural India.

‘Digital India mein toh hum lutt gaye [Digital India simply ruined me]’

While the government seems keen to usher us towards the promised land of digital utopia, actually going digital, entails grappling with the multi-headed hydra of privacy concerns. Pushing for online solutions to our contemporary problems may be fashionable, but it might be more efficacious and ethical to gauge the effectiveness of such solutions among populations that lack the resources for both digital access and redressal; after all, virtual problems can very easily turn into real issues. Ramji, a social worker from Banda says,

‘I use Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube…They aren’t necessarily untrustworthy apps, but in this country, everything can be used for wrongful purposes in the wrong hands. For example, there are so many fake news messages and links swirling around on Whatsapp every day…And many people have ended up becoming victims of fraud because they clicked on such links. Similarly, on Facebook, some people create fake accounts or hack other people’s accounts and then con people into giving them money. So, just as there are benefits of these apps, there are also problems with them.’

Ishteyak Ahmed, a social worker with the Jan Seva Kendra, Banda tells us of his own experiences with online fraud:

‘I, myself, have become a victim of technology at one point, just like most people…these two men came saying they work for Micro Finance Private Ltd. They designed a website so beautiful that nobody could be suspicious of it…They told me to transfer Rs.2,0000 into their account and said that I could keep track of my money in my digital wallet. They said that with the help of their website, I could give out a loan of up to Rs. 30,000 to people. It all seemed fine to me. We tried doing it 5-6 times, and they did show me the application for sanctioning money, but no name would show up [was potentially using dummy text]. They told me that other people, including one of my friends in Girwa, were using their software. But it wouldn’t work in my case, and later on, they stopped answering my calls as well. Sometime later, both the website and they were gone. [Na website bachi, nah woh.]

This is undoubtedly a misuse of technology, as well as carelessness… I suffered a loss of Rs. 20,000 in this whole ordeal…During that time the DIG had come to Girwa Thana, so my friend—who was also conned—and I wrote an application to him. At that time, some newspapers even covered our story. I still have the pictures. Then the lockdown was implemented. But even then, no progress took place. The police never contacted us and we are yet to receive any information. Digital India mein toh hum lutt gaye. [Digital India simply ruined me].’

According to a report published in 2019, online cyber crimes are set to overtake offline crimes in India. Since individual data isn’t fully protected, online banking has become even more difficult, which in turn has led to many Indians becoming victims of fraud. Although banking data is among the best protected in India, limited digital literacy means that people often fall prey to con artists and other virtual traps by giving out personal data that they shouldn’t. In such a scenario, we need to rigorously address questions of data privacy before we foist digital solutions upon our population.

En-Gendering Virtual Spaces

Protecting oneself becomes doubly hazardous when we acknowledge the blatant gendering of the virtual space in India. In rural India, twice as many men use the Internet as compared to women. But the numbers of the latter are slowly increasing. According to a report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, 26 million female Internet users started using the Internet from November 2019. At the same time, according to statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau, from 2017 to 2018, there was an increase of 36% in cyber crimes or cyber harassment against women and children. Experts believe that due to the coronavirus lockdown, there is a definite increase in cyber crimes against women.

Susheela, the Pradhan of Kol Majra in Chitrakoot tells us what it’s like to inhabit a predominantly masculine space—both virtual and politically:

‘Mostly, I pay attention to things like privacy on social media, on my mobile phone. I constantly keep a check on who is messaging me, how they’re using my social media etc, because I don’t know how to use all of the apps properly. There are many young men with a wrong mindset, who know how to work all these apps which I have no idea about. So, I want to make sure that people like that are not harming women and women like us. Two years after I became Pradhan, some people targeted me via Whatsapp and Facebook. These people started spreading fake news about my work and started slinging mud on my character, on social media platforms like Whatsapp and Facebook. I had to file a case against them.’

Susheela highlights exactly the kind of obstacles women in India have to face in order to occupy spaces— virtual and otherwise— without fear. In spite of having the second-largest Internet-using population in the world, the disparity between men and women using the Internet, thus, continues to be stark. Most of India’s rural population accesses the Internet through their phones. According to the latest GSMA report titled ‘Connected Women: The Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020’, there is a 20 per cent gender gap between male and female mobile owners in India and an even wider 50 per cent gender gap when it comes to mobile Internet users. Twenty-year-old Jankali from Chitrakoot says,

‘Despite there being a phone in the house, it’s not easily available to me. When I do use it, I can’t talk in peace, so often I don’t get crucial information about my studies…During the lockdown, one problem was that I couldn’t get any information from anywhere regarding my studies. I’m unable to even get any information about my college. In a time when people don’t easily give their phone to strangers, I had to borrow a phone from someone else to check my result… Most of the houses in the village have just one phone…most people have one with a keypad. Very few people have touchscreen phones. It’s very important to have a mobile in the house because it’s helpful in an emergency, one can even study from it. It’s an essential need. If I had a phone, I’d be more properly informed. I could study properly and would know all the updates from my college. I could be better prepared for my future and widen my horizons. I could be better informed about admissions and all the guidelines, especially now. But without a phone, I have no way of knowing, I have no means. I’m not able to study right now because not only do I not have a mobile, but due to the financial strain caused by the lockdown, I can’t buy books either.’

The older Kalawati wryly explains her reality to us:

‘I have 3 school-going daughters who attend classes online. If I don’t pay for a phone, they won’t pass their exams. While it’s good that they are still teaching students from afar, poor people like us are at a disadvantage now. One phone costs about Rs. 10,000, and that’s a lot when you don’t even have Rs.10 at home. In that case, how does one get a mobile?… I have my children to educate, so I don’t have the money to buy a phone! Money is the reason! If you have the money you have everything, and if you don’t you have nothing. Nobody is sitting idly and sending me Rs. 10,000 so that I can buy a phone now, are they? I’m struggling to even get my kids admitted into school…I’m uneducated, but at least my children could study via a phone.’

Clearly, then, while ‘online education’ is a convenient phrase and the new trendy buzzword of 2020, it appears hollow in the face of the gendered, class and caste-based challenges posed by the pandemic. We’ve also reported on how India’s digital divide is even proving fatal for some students. Even the presumption that people in rural India, and women, in particular, would own phones is laughable. This lacuna in the opportunities available for education manifests in further marginalisation of women; we even found that in areas where women’s education was brought to a halt, women were unable to reach out to the police or their families for help in escaping difficult and violent domestic situations. Thus, the lack of access to technology has grave implications for women.

Pushpa S, a seventeen-year-old student from a village in Binoba Nagar, Chitrakoot tells us about her experiences without a phone:

‘Earlier, women weren’t given even a shred of respect. So, that mindset has prevailed, as not only are women not allowed to leave their homes, but they aren’t given phones while inside their house… when we go out, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. If girls have a phone with them, they can even call the police or the helpline numbers. In an emergency, we have to ask around, and very often even in times of need, people aren’t willing to give their phones. People don’t want to get involved in an emergency, so it’s better to have your own…Yes, there are so many times when I think that if I had a phone, I could solve half my problems. Minor issues at home, when my mother needs help, I could do so much if I had a phone. When an emergency arrives, we have to run around asking people for a phone but they make up excuses to avoid giving us the phone…So, I often think if I had a phone, things would have been so much better for my family. I could help them out so much more and be more informed.’

Pushpa M (a twenty-two year old married young girl from Mahoba) concurs while pointing out the hazards of even asking for a phone when in public: ‘Even when I need a phone when out, I can’t ask anyone for their phone because then people will tell my in-laws, “tumhari bahu mobile maangti hai” [your daughter-in-law keeps asking for a mobile] and start questioning my character.’

Chhotkai says,

‘If I had a phone, I could reach out to my family living in the cities, ask them how they were, whether they eat on time or not…When the lockdown happened, we would have been better informed because we would have been constantly checking the phone. Without a phone, how are we supposed to know what is happening in the world? Men constantly say, ‘don’t go here or there,’ so well, how are we supposed to even know [where to go], without a phone! News about the virus is only travelling from word-of-mouth. If I had a phone, I’d have the correct information.’

Khabar Lahariya’s own viewership statistics tell an abysmal story: 88% of our online viewers are men, and 12% women. While we are passionate about questions of access, we still have miles to go to ensure that the women we want to hear and reach can hear and reach us. Is the government truly prepared to make its most vulnerable populations digitally atma-nirbhar [self-reliant]?

Surveillance Scares: Drones in Lalitpur

Technical monitoring

Meanwhile, In Lalitpur, news of surveillance drones patrolling the area to monitor social-distancing protocols sent the district into a tizzy. On 19 July 2020, the media reported that drone cameras are indeed being used for surveillance. But when we asked people about it, they were clueless. Umesh Kumar, a young laborer from Mehrauni in Lalitpur says, ‘I didn’t even know that there were drone cameras being used for surveillance here…We should be informed, though.’ Archana adds, ‘Yes, I have both seen and heard [the drones]. But, that facility is not available here as of now. The drone manages to capture views from the sky… A drone camera provides a complete view that makes it easy to keep an eye on people or to gather information.’

Since the time of the coronavirus, private companies that build and control unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, such as Garuda Aerospace, have been functioning in several ‘smart cities’, such as Varanasi, Rourkela, Raipur, and Kanpur, for sanitation and surveillance purposes. These private companies work in conjunction with the state governments in order to perform their functions. However, Digvijay Singh, the Chairman of the Bhartiya Janta Yuva Morcha believes that Lalitpur has not seen any drones so far:

‘As of now, no drone cameras have been used herein Mehrauni. It has come to our notice that drone cameras are being used in nearby areas, so if the government keeps up with this form of surveillance, I think it would greatly help in preventing the spread of Covid-19. I think the government should start the use of drones in smaller places too. A drone camera can monitor places in various ways. For example, a drone camera can go into places where a human being cannot. Police and security agencies can only monitor the grounds to a certain level. They can’t put people everywhere. But you’d find the technology of drone cameras being used in developed countries and in big cities, or smart cities as PM Modi calls them. The camera can capture even the smallest of movements and go into places where humans physically cannot, so, it’d make for a great security device.’

Clearly, then, privacy means very different things to different people. Fundamentally, the ramifications of the lack of privacy affect the autonomy of individuals over their own bodies, data, and virtual spaces, alongside often having colossal impacts on their everyday lives. The use of surveillance drones on a population that is barely digitally and technologically literate reeks of entitlement and institutional overreach.

To compound the confusing spread of (mis)information in the district, Dr. Dinesh Kumar, the ASP of Lalitpur confirmed via phone that the police had in fact been using one drone to monitor the area:

‘Through drone cameras, we can monitor if people even in small neighborhoods are following social distancing guidelines, not gathering in groups, if they’re wearing a mask or not. Via drone cameras, we can even follow up on these cases. In this pandemic, red zones or containment zones are put under barricades, which are surveilled by drone cameras. Through these cameras, we make sure nobody is gathering in groups or walking around without a mask.’

At a time when the need for trustworthy news is paramount, this abysmal sharing of information related to public health and safety is highly concerning. Privacy and safety concerns about drones are not new. Some drone cameras have facial recognition features allowing them to profile unsuspecting civilians without their consent. This data is collected by the government, raising questions about the ethics of such ‘public safety measures’ being taken without the consent of the population. After all, the Indian judiciary does recognise the right to privacy as fundamental. The normalisation of such invasive forms of surveillance using catch-all phrases like ‘necessary evils’ or ‘in the name of public security’ has led to more bureaucratic excesses that endanger individuals and their right to privacy. Consequently, we, and the concerned citizens of Lalitpur, are right to be wary of these technological incursions into our everyday. Privacy, what is that?

Ishteyak lambasts such vague, incompletely implemented, and often exploitative privacy policies citizens have to grapple with:

‘Privacy has lost all meaning. When you say ‘right to privacy,’ I’d say there’s no right to privacy. Right to privacy means that our privacy shouldn’t be invaded without our consent, and this is being openly misused; common people’s privacy is regularly eroded. During elections, one starts getting messages from the political party sitting in power. Even while voting, many people, and I’m including myself, have received messages from the ruling party urging us to vote for them or simply telling us why they’re so great. Why? All of this is a ploy to convince the voter into believing that only this party is good and the rest are bad. So, where is there any privacy left? How can you get my number and send me messages without my consent? How do these political parties and corporate companies have my phone number without my consent?’

Ramji interjects here with his more pragmatic solutions, ‘I do not trust the government. I’m very clear about this and don’t mince my words. The government has its duties, and we have ours. The government’s duty is to provide us with protection. If they misuse that information, then they are failing at their duty. The bottom line is, privacy means we have to protect ourselves.’ Our interviewees have no faith in a failing system that does not seem equipped to deal with the complicated ethical, political, and technical challenges that accompany any move towards digitization.

Although about 78% of India’s 1.3 billion people have access to mobile phones, “tele-density” in rural areas is around 57%, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. But it is worth mentioning that the majority of Indian Internet users are between 20 and 29 years of age, and a slightly higher proportion of these users are from rural parts. The GSMA estimates that closing the gender gap in mobile internet use across low- and middle-income countries like India could add $700 billion in GDP growth (representing an additional 0.7 per cent of GDP growth) over the next five years.


The essay is a commissioned piece produced by Khabar Lahariya.

Byline: Kaagni Harekal, Meera Devi & Khabar Lahariya Bureau