Being on the margins of privacy

Some time ago, I deeply embarrassed my mother-in-law. She was handing me a cup of coffee as I received a new message notification from WhatsApp. I opened the message while she was hovering around. It was a very graphic gif sent by a schoolmate who regularly forwards porn, despite being a respected corporate executive and a grandfather.

The receipt of inappropriate content is a serious problem with social media, not only for folks with prudish mothers-in-law but also for those using office-issued handsets. The recipient has no control over what’s pushed at him.

Another WhatsApp feature, which is actually a bug, allows anybody to be added to a group without permission. Even if someone leaves a group, he or she can be added again and again. A group member’s number is exposed to every other group member. If you block a number, you still receive messages from it if you have a group in common.

It’s also become an increasingly common and creative tactic to harass somebody by adding her or him to a group in order to abuse the person. This is a painful variation on trolling. There is no effective way to stop it in India, at least.

It should be easy to plug this loophole: Just make it mandatory to ask permission before adding somebody to a group. But Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, is similarly insensitive on its home network and FB and FB Messenger also allows people to be added without permission to groups.

Political messaging is another irritant. Some members of any given group will always be committed to pushing political agendas. These folks will forward every bit of nonsense that fits their political inclinations. Others spout religious gobbledygook and share “spiritual” messages from “Godpersons”. Some folks just indiscriminately forward everything, including messages about their tax returns.

Despite the drawbacks, such social media groups can be useful. Alumni associations, resident welfare groups, professional bodies, work colleagues, hobbyists, politicians, all use WhatsApp and FB groups to stay in touch, pass information, and coordinate events. Also, if you’re on a decent data connection and plan, it’s a good way to save money on voice/video calls. End-to-end encryption is a comfort in these times. But this is only one thin layer of protection and it’s very permeable. All it takes is one person to forward and breach privacy.

One important use for closed, encrypted groups is to create “whisper networks”, where private thoughts and sensitive information can be shared. Women have always used physical whisper networks. Domestic workers in every middle-class mohalla share information about “Sahibs” who indulge in sexual harassment and “Madams” (for some reason, Memsahibs are now madams) who are tight-fisted and/or bitchy.

In technologically sophisticated professions, women use online whisper networks to warn each other about sexual harassers. For example, women working in the US media used a closed whisper network to warn each other about men in the media with creepy reputations. When that list went public, all hell broke loose.

A law student of Indian origin in Singapore has started a similar whisper list of alleged sexual harassers working in Indian academia. The list is crowd-sourced from anonymous complaints and the intentions are similar. It is designed to warn students about professors with nasty behaviour patterns. Given that public complaints about harassment usually result in the complainant being victimised, the desire to compile such a list anonymously is understandable. 

Sexual harassment is an endemic global problem and it is, equally obviously, not tackled at all effectively by current legal systems and processes. There is a crying need to sensitise men, to punish sexual harassers, to treat victims with compassion, and issue alerts about offenders.

But this is no solution. It is all too easy to create a fake online persona (or five) and make anonymous complaints against anybody you choose. Once named on such a list, the accused is smeared forever. For how does somebody refute an anonymous complaint about unspecified actions alleged to have occurred on some unknown date?
Twitter: @devangshudatta

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