Indian Culture Normalizes Spying. This Affects How We View Digital Privacy


Aug 14, 2021


Image Credit: UTV/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

The nosy neighbor, pictured with a pair of binoculars, standing in dubious moral shadows (of a curtain), in pursuit of gossip-cum-information, has long been a mainstay in Indian media. This trope is emblematic of the Indian sensibility around privacy — or, rather, the lack thereof. 

“Right from a widespread acceptance of men and censoring elders ‘looking’ at women on the street, to neighbors who think nothing of socially surveilling each other, invasions of privacy are normalized or socially sanctioned in the name of protecting culture, or morals, or a community’s honor,” Usha Raman, a professor of media studies and digital culture at the University of Hyderabad, notes. 

Just as people accept seemingly innocuous surveillance from family members and communities, the idea of the government surveying its people too doesn’t grate on us. Societal acceptance of physical surveillance leads to an acceptance of privacy digitally. On an individual level, the gaps in understanding personal privacy also impact how (little) we think about it in a digital arena. Collectively, surveillance becomes normalized on a national level, becoming a democracy’s Achilles’ heel. 

A 1992 study showed people in South Asia tend to report a lower need for privacy than western counterparts. Theorist Hofstede also postulated that India is a collectivist society because of which people have more trust and faith in other people. “Be it people elbowing each other in a crowded bus or strangers sharing berths on a train without raising an eyebrow,” Osama Manzar and Urvashi, researchers at the Digital Empowerment Foundation, wrote in a 2017 article, “personal space is not considered of significance at home or outside [in India].” The social nexus is perpetuated owing to unique family structures, crowded public spaces, and a general understanding of sharing; social interactions become of the highest priority consequently.

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 is only recently becoming even recognized in Indian society, and within families it’s a very tenuous concept,” Raman notes. In other words, privacy is almost an illusion or worse, considered an extravagance we don’t need.

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Rohini Lakshané, a technologist and public policy researcher, compiled a list of some movies that further this understanding of exploitative surveillance. Mainstream films like ‘Humpty Sharma ki Dulhaniya,’ ‘Masaan,’ or ‘Chappa Kurishu’ carry the motif of surveillance — things like hidden cameras planted in bathrooms. The perpetrators of such invasions face no punitive action. “In a way, these depictions show a level of normalization…” Lakshané says.

In the end, the issue of privacy is too often presented as a binary. “You can have privacy, or you can have security. But no one asks security from whom? [security] for what?” Raman points out.

“There are certain T.V. crime shows which show the police tapping phones or keeping a tab on an individual or families, where the police believe that the concerned person is a terrorist or a criminal,” Pallavi Bedi, a researcher at the Center for Internet and Society, notes. The problem, however, is most of these thriller shows do not depict the actual procedure involved in undertaking surveillance, leaving the legality of these operations unclear.

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

“In the absence of adequate oversight and safeguards, surveillance by the government can be used to profile people and take down populations or individuals that the government wants to repress or oppress.” The tabled DNA Bill, which is expected to be taken up in this year’s Lok Sabha session, is a pertinent example to that effect. 

Interestingly, in the list of people allegedly being surveilled using Pegasus — a spyware that can hack into smartphones and even take control of it —  numbers of various activists, such as Umar Khalid, were found. Research has also shown the extent to which data can be weaponized to influence voter perception, ideologies, and even distort realities.

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

As a result, people don’t hesitate to volunteer information, or unassumingly give it up, when asked. The raft of personal information required in the context of an Aadhar card, or even Aarogya Setu, is then not considered a breach of privacy. What happens to this data or who uses it are all but semantics.

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Our cultural ideas around privacy inevitably translate into a tepid 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 safeguards the rights of citizens,” Rohini notes. Only in 2017, mere four years ago, the Supreme Court recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right. “Indian’s cultural context imposes challenges in understanding and implementing privacy as a right that is intrinsic to life and liberty,” a lawyer noted. Even in the 2017 SC guidelines, privacy was largely posited as the “right to be left alone.”

Currently, communication surveillance mainly takes place under two laws — the Telegraph Act, 1885 (interception of calls) and the Information Technology Act (surveillance of electronic communication). There are no regulations to address the various gaps in both legal frameworks in order to discourage overreach. 

Despite performing several transactions online, allowing servers to access our digital footprints, our understanding of the implications remains grossly thin; people “think all of this is par for the course in a digital society,” Raman adds. 

Such normalizing of the government’s intervention in daily life inevitably leads people to do self-censorship for an outside chance that the government might be listening. 

All of this then leads to “a normalized or socially sanctioned culture of surveillance — some scholars call this co-veillance,” Raman argues. It is where we forgive a great deal of intrusion from our communities, and are made to feel guilty if we choose to remain private, and to not share.

Those who make demands of privacy are viewed as particularly deviant, because privacy becomes synonymous with “secrecy,” akin to a “rebel” teenager asking for space or deleting texts to prevent their parents from seeing it. People in power can brazenly say things such as only “wrongdoers” need privacy. 

“People who resist such surveillance are labeled as people … who are up to some kind of wrongdoing, or have skeletons in their closet, or are immoral and disreputable. I’ve noticed persons who oppose government surveillance being labeled anti-national, terrorist sympathizers/apologists or terrorists themselves,”Lakshané notes. In the absence of adequate oversight and safeguards, surveillance can be used to profile people and as a tool of oppression.

The “I have nothing to hide” argument normalizes any form of surveillance by making a moral judgment about what people hide — insisting that no harm will be caused to people if privacy is breached. The idea of consent is grievously missing: people should choose to share what’s happening inside their homes, or their hides.

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

The problem with disowning privacy as a foreign concept, or a colonial hangover, is what leads to it being viewed as a frivolity. Most Indian languages, Manzar and Urvashi noted, don’t have a word for privacy; the closest they come to understanding is through perceptions of things such as “shame.” Such gaps in understanding are telling of a larger crisis of personal identity, socio-cultural values, and national identity.

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

These issues need to be explored to a point of exhaustion. What hangs in the balance is our power to define ourselves in the most fundamental ways. There is too much at stake for us not to fight for this right to privacy and really spell out what it means.


Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.


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