Privacy practices in the Indian technology ecosystem

Privacy practices in the Indian technology ecosystem

A 2020 survey of the makers of products and services

Nadika N

Nadika N

@nadikanadja

Kiran Jonnalagadda

Kiran Jonnalagadda

@jace Editor

The implications of caste and gender on privacy

Submitted Apr 6, 2021

In a paper for the Network and Info-Tech Research and Development programme of the US Govt, authors Baskerville, Alashoor and Zhu, say1 “In the language of privacy discourse, the notion of identity becomes highly pertinent, merely due to the associated threat of privacy invasion to identity reconstruction.”

The authors propose a “Identity Bridge” in which a threat to a physical self or a physical identity has consequences on a digital or online identity, and similarly, a threat to digital or online identity has consequences for the physical self.

“if the online identity is a metaphor indicating an individual’s real life and real social interactions, privacy invasions are very consequential. Hence, a threat to the digital identity brings about a threat to online identity; and if true personal identity and social identity were used to construct the online 6 identity, a threat to the online identity generates a threat to the social identity and the personal identity, respectively. The threats to the social and personal identities are hypersensitive as they are directly related to the physical milieu.”

In his 1975 book, “The Environment & Social Behaviour”,2 Irwin Altman defines Privacy as “selective control of the access to the self, or to one’s group”.

Here, the self is a pointer to one’s physical self and one’s identity. That is, the self is an awareness of who one is, which is both a pointer to a physical embodiment and a social/cultural identity forged by interaction with others.

In the Indian context, the identity is both an individual identity and a membership to a group identity – a caste identity – further reinforced by social interaction. Caste is a social and a ritual hierarchy, and is also intricately linked to one’s economic activity. It imposes a social order and emphasises a social hierarchy over the individual identity. Sukhdeo Thorat and Katherine Newman in an EPW essay say,3 “The economic organisation of the caste system is based on the division of the population into a hierarchical order of social groups that determine the economics rights of members, which are determined by birth and are hereditary in the strictest sense of the term.” The authors, paraphrasing Ambedkar, say. “A community-based system of enforcement regulates caste privileges by means of social ostracism, violence, and economic penalties that find their justification in elements of Hindu religion.”

In the caste hierarchy, those higher up the ladder, with more privilege, have greater authority, better economic and social prospects, and more political say. The upper and dominant castes have better access to education, employment, wealth and capital, health, and political office. This provides members of these castes a greater cushion to soften blows that may arise from any threat - be it physical, social, or economic.

The more social and cultural capital or privilege one has, the less a potential invasion of privacy matters. Social privilege offers the individual a protection from the “bang”, as well as a cushion to weather the effects following the bang. That is, social hierarchy and privilege offers both “before the bang” privacy protection, and better “after the bang” ability to recover.

For the upper castes and privileged, this manifests in what personally identifiable information (PII) one is willing to reveal – be it one’s caste surname, age, marital status, educational qualifications, occupation/profession or political affiliation. The lower down the caste hierarchy one is, the lesser the protection, and greater the cost of recovery.

For instance, a digital wallet or payments app may gather the user’s payment methods – vital for core functioning – but may also ask for physical location, addresses, age and gender, and collect information regarding other apps used and nature and quantity of purchases made, and use these to infer social locations of the user such as caste and gender, marital status, and more. When a breach happens and this data is leaked, users with lesser privilege are affected more – in that they had good reasons to not reveal such data compared to those with greater privilege.

Product decisions – beyond core functionality – are influenced by the social and economic conditions and locations of the team making the product.

A study by Surinder Jodhka & Katherine Newman in 2007 concludes:4 “The belief in merit is only sometimes accompanied by a truly ‘caste blind’ orientation. Instead, we see the commitment to merit voiced alongside convictions that merit is distributed by caste or region and hence the qualities of individuals fade from view, replaced by stereotypes. Under these circumstances, one must take the profession of deep belief in meritocracy with a heavy grain of salt.”

A study by Krishna & Brahmadeyam5 found that a majority of new recruits in Bangalore’s software firms had parents who were both educated to at least a high-school degree.

A study by Sonalde Desai and Veena Kulkarni, on education attainment of youth6 (ages 24-29) showed that in 1983, over 50% of upper caste men, and 32% of upper caste women in India had access to primary and secondary education, and went on to a college degree. The numbers for 1999-2000, was around 60% for upper caste men, and 41% for upper caste women. In contrast, for Dalits and other men of a marginalised caste location in 1983, only 33% had access to education at a primary or high-school level, and only 11% of the Dalit women had access to the same. For 1999-2000, 47% of Dalit men had access to education up to high school, and 41% of Dalit women were educated to primary or secondary school level.

These studies indicate that a large section of technology professionals holding authority roles are upper-caste men. Thus, one can argue that the decision making when it comes to privacy-enhancing features of products or services – whose core functionality is not privacy protection – is made by those for whom privacy risks are minimal, and may adversely impact those for whom the same risks are significant.

There is also considerable study and anecdotal evidence to suggest that ignorance of one’s own caste identity, or ability to claim castelessness, is often a preserve of the upper castes. Sathish Deshpande in Caste and Castlessness says,7 “there is an awareness that ‘in this land of equality and liberty’ the public declaration of upper caste identity has been made voluntary, and that this could be a decisive tactical advantage. Unlike the compulsory marking of lower caste identity which the new republic perpetuates and intensifies, upper caste identity may now be declared or not at will. Most important, the privileges and benefits that accrue to the upper caste identity may now be accessed anonymously, while its political-moral debts and liabilities are written off by the new Constitution.”

A. M. Shah in Mirage of Caste-less Society, says8 that while a new, urbanised section of society claiming to be free of caste does exist, “Often the claim to being caste-less is skin deep, and caste surfaces all of a sudden in mysterious ways.”

Of the 180+ respondents, more than a third (68) self identified as upper caste. Another 25 responded “Don’t know”. The responses are presented here classified by whether the respondent holds an authority role in their organization.

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  1. Alashoor, T., Baskerville, R. and Zhu, R., 2016, January. Privacy and identity theft recovery planning: an onion skin model. In 2016 49th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS), IEEE, pp. 3696–3705 

  2. Altman, I., 1975: The Environment and Social Behavior: Privacy, Personal Space, Territory, Crowding, Page 24, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company 

  3. Thorat, S. and Newman, K. S., 2007. Caste and economic discrimination: Causes, consequences and remedies. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 4121–4124. 

  4. Jodhka, S. S. and Newman, K. S., 2007. In the name of globalisation: Meritocracy, productivity and the hidden language of caste. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 4125–4132. 

  5. Krishna, A. and Brihmadesam, V., 2006. What does it take to become a software professional?. Economic and Political Weekly, pp. 3307–3314. 

  6. Desai, S. and Kulkarni, V., 2008. Changing educational inequalities in India in the context of affirmative action. Demography, 45(2), pp.245–270. 

  7. Deshpande, S., 2013. Caste and Castelessness. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 48, no. 15, 2013, pp. 32–39. 

  8. Shah, A. M., 2017. The mirage of a caste-less society in India. Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 52, no. 9, 2017, pp. 61–66. 

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