When the first computer was built, neither Ada Lovelace nor Charles Babbage would not have imagined it to evolve into smartphones and the endless range of gadgets we have today. The scientists of yesteryear couldn’t have imagined what technology would look like today, nor what it would be used for. Snapchat probably wouldn’t even have occurred to them!
Companies with a ‘Social’ Consciousness
As the values of a society evolve, we see companies recalibrating their products to appeal to the sentiments of the current society. It is clear women’s safety is a worldwide concern and companies are acknowledging and responding to these social issues, by building products to resolve those issues.
Uber, the ride-share app, added an emergency call feature after receiving complaints about driver misconduct and allegations of abuse. Products like Leaf Wearables are being manufactured, which when activated can trigger a silent alarm and your location to your emergency contacts. There is nail polish available in the market, which changes colour when it comes in contact with a date rape drug. Recently, a marketing agency conducted an experiment with the touch sensor dress, ‘the Dress for Respect’ in Brazil, where the dress recorded that the woman was touched 157 times in 4 hours, without her consent.
If the safety advice for women available on the website of Hyderabad Police is any indication, women must never leave their homes. Truthfully, being armed and equipped with whistles, army knives, red pepper powder, gizmo tracker necklace, or mobile applications aimed at ‘women’s safety’ just offers some relative comfort and pretence of security.
Imagine a day in the life of a woman. She wakes up and before she heads out for the day, she arms herself with a safety bracelet that tracks her ‘route’ and if she deviates from it, the bracelet alerts her emergency contacts. She turns on the tracking on her mobile phone, just in case. Along with her tiffin and laptop bag, she is also reminded her to carry her pepper spray or a simple whistle to try and surprise the attacker, just in case. Onroute, she turns on her phone and opens an app that tracks the best routes, as per several thousand citizen reviews on safety, cleanliness, etc. You know, the types of apps that use big data for big impact on human lives.
Imagine, armouring yourself up with a button camera in case you need to snap a picture of the perpetrator, because inevitably your testimony would be deemed unreliable. Or requiring an app which audio records your interaction when you activate the alert, so that you have evidence of the ‘incident’ you are unable to avoid even with your arsenal of apps. We’re optimistic though, that the world is becoming a better place. Or are we in denial or just reluctant to see the truth, because the truth would mean that you and I must also be held accountable and responsible for things that occur in our society?
All Tech must be Updated
Not all efforts succeed; Uber recently dropped the ball. When a passenger alerted Uber that her driver was behaving indecently during a ride at night in Delhi, Uber’s customer service’s response was to call the Uber driver and ask him to end the ride in the middle of a secluded road and ask the customer to leave. What use is the emergency button if the company and its employees don’t know what to do when the alarm is activated?
Training customer service personnel who attend the helplines becomes paramount, but do we expect them to be trained distress agents too? Are they ready and equipped to deal with callers who are in accidents, or in uncomfortable situations, and need police or medical health? Is the ‘emergency’ button a sincere effort to help out in a ‘situation’ or just ticking some compliance requirement to avoid legal liability on part of the companies? How far do we expect the companies to go to fulfill their social responsibility?
Several technology-based products have emerged in this niche market aimed at improving safety for women during travel or commute. However, incidents like the one above, tell us that the area is still developing and the products, although well-meaning are still flawed. The tech-based apps available in the Indian markets today have received varying criticisms, including but not limited to that they consume a lot of battery power, apps reliant on internet connectivity fail in parts of India where there are connectivity issues, and some of the apps miss the point entirely by asking a litany of questions which have patriarchal overtones. Additionally, these apps are not accessible to the wider audience due to cost concerns and language portability.
Cyber Crimes against Women
Technology has had many positive impacts on our personal and professional lives. Although technology has the potential to help women and individuals feel safer, developers first need to understand the issues surrounding women safety. The National Crime Statistics Bureau report indicates that in over 70% of the rape cases, the perpetrator is a known person, whether family or friend or neighbor. Most crimes and forms of violence against women occur at home. Additionally, the statistics don’t account for the instances of cyber crimes against women.
Cyber crimes against women in India may occur as harassment, stalking, bullying, defamation, revenge pornography, morphing, etc. Perpetrators of cyber crime seem to be emboldened by the physical separation from the victim. Cyber crime in India has presented as blackmail to solicit ‘indecent photographs’, or sending pornographic images, or hacking personal information online, or bullying someone for their appearance online, or even threatening to find and rape someone because they disagreed with their opinion. The issue is further made complex by the lax privacy policies of most of the social media sites available online today. Of course the Personal Data Protection Bill aims to address the gaps in data privacy online, however, it’s still a pipeline Act and implementation remains to be seen.
That being said, most social media sites allow you to block, report and lodge complaints against users who violate their data policies. When next encountered with a cyberbully, block him without hesitation sister, instead of putting yourself in a potentially dangerous situation.
Technology disrupts, Technology fixes?
With the advent of social media, the number of people an individual can come in contact with has increased exponentially. Of these, some people might be good, and others might be a source of discomfort or harassment online. Women are reluctant to come forward with their story of abuse or mistreatment because of the social stigma and heavy handed victim-blaming in our society.
When a woman does come forward, she is instead asked to answer inane questions by the authorities, such as why did you continue the interaction, etc. Women are often dissuaded by authorities to register a formal complaint, with the subtle threat ‘if you do file the complaint, we would have to conduct thorough investigations, which would mean nothing about your life will remain private anymore’.
The Government of India has launched the cyber crime online portal where you can report and track complaints as part of the Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children. Initiated utilizing the funds under the Nirbhaya Funds, the portal was launched on 20th September 2018 and has so far received over 4000 complaints. The portal permits anonymous reporting for cases concerning child pornography or rape/gang rape allegations, under the instructions of the Supreme Court of India. It however remains to be seen, how these complaints received by the cybercrimes unit will be dealt with.
What do we do about this ‘Technology’?
Humanity and Technology are currently in lock-step salsa, one step forward, two steps back, and right and left. Tech companies which are working towards resolving ‘women’s safety’ issues must engage with their audience and try to understand the glitches or critical failures of the technology available today. The ethical issues must be addressed along with the technical issues.
We all live online now, and are becoming increasingly tech reliant. From in-house automation to AI enabled refrigerators which can order your groceries for you, technology might be taking over, and it might soon be time to find Neo from The Matrix. But until then, it is the prerogative of each individual to ensure their safety online. Be careful who you share your location, or any personal information with. Install and update anti-virus. Take time to build trust and relationships with people we have met online and ultimately be a kind online citizen.