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Encryption: Issues around online violence against women

The challenges around tackling online violence against women in India is a techno-social issue, with multiple levels of failure at police and law enforcement. For instance, when women approach law enforcement and police to complain against violence, filing of complaints are often delayed, and by the time it is made, the harm has been done. When the police do use the IT Act, and send notices to social media companies, “it takes years for them to get a response since the format is not standardised or structured”, a speaker said during MediaNama’s discussion on encryption. “The fact that we have jumped towards breaking encryption for something that is deeply-rooted. Even our reaction to mob violence was to break encryption online. There are easy and not structural responses,” the speaker said.

The issue was being discussed as part of a workshop, held by MediaNama, with support from Internet Society (Asia Pacific Office), on challenges to encryption in India. Note that the discussion was held under the Chatham House Rule and thus quotes have not been attributed.

“Law enforcement agencies and police have to go through the MLAT [Mutual legal assistance treaty] process to obtain information from a platform like Twitter. Even if you’re a good cop, you fail at this level. These points of failure need to be identified and solved,” a speaker said.

The issue was being discussed as part of a workshop, held by MediaNama, with support from Internet Society, on challenges to encryption in India. Note that the discussion is was under the Chatham House Rule, so quotes have not been attributed.

It is not always a technical issue: “The mentality of the Indian police has caused women to not approach the police. FIRs are public, and having your details out here, is also a cause of concern for women. In one case, the cops filed an FIR (which was public), and made up imaginary details in it. They write as if they know what the issue is,” a speaker said. With these systemic issues persistent, it’s not necessarily a technical problem, the speaker added. 

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Ignoring cases without monetary loss: “Police and cybercrime stations often ignore cases of online harms and violence against women when there is no monetary loss. They tend to act in cases where there is tangible, quantifiable harm, such as bank fraud,” a speaker said. 

Police training at constable level: “Training of constables and head constables, who record the FIRs, is missing. This leads to errors in the FIRs, mentioning incorrect laws, does not get recorded in the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) statistics,” a speaker said. For instance,

  • When people complain of being trolled or receiving unwanted information, a lot of metadata is associated with that. Cops need to be trained for these practices. Cyber forensic analysis has never picked up in India. If a woman has an abusive partner, he could be installing spyware on your phone, which could collect your private information. Cops don’t even have the capacity to analyse the phone or charge the person. These investigative practices rarely exist in India.

By asking for breaking encryption instead of examining alternatives, the police are essentially passing the buck onto the platform, another speaker opined. Police officer Rema Rajeshwari, for instance, started a campaign which used more community-rooted ways of spreading counter-misinformation. So we have neither examined alternatives to breaking encryption (to achieve the said goal), nor have to looked at violence against women as a techno-social issue, the person added. 

The VPN dead-end: “The police reach a dead-end when they approach platforms for VPN data. This is nearly impossible as cops don’t even know which VPN service was being used,” a speaker said. Another speaker added that traceability is a huge issue in systems like Tor that use crypto-based algorithms to anonymise IPs.  

Notice-and-takedown effort does not have something that specifically addresses VAW, this was also suggested by IT for Change. New Zealand has an arbitration mechanism, a separate body that looks into online violence against women. This can also be implemented in India. In this situation, the investigation is also taking place, but the issue is resolved via arbitration. 

Some questions that arise

  • What kind of training and improvements are needed in general police and cybercrime?  
  • Will a separate notice-and-takedown effort for online violence against women help? 
  • What are the alternatives, apart from breaking encryption, available to police and law enforcement agencies to tackle cases of violence against women?
  • What kind of evangelism can be done, say to introduce good practice online, so women that keep themselves safe? 

Written By

I cover health, policy issues such as intermediary liability, data governance, internet shutdowns, and more. Hit me up for tips.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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