Millennium Post

Safeguarding privacy

An institutionalised legal framework for concealing victim’s identity in reputation cases could help address privacy issues and reduce underreporting of cases

Safeguarding privacy

During the past month alone, numerous contacts have called me, seeking advice and intervention to help deal with 'sextortion' – extortion rooted in compromises due to letting one's guard down during online 'sexual acts'. Often, victims are threatened that their explicit 'online sexual acts' (recorded stealthily) would be made viral on social media or sent to family members, friends and acquaintances unless the victim coughs up money. Most victims may have been 'complicit' themselves or trapped. The dilemma is either to keep 'giving-in' to the incessant demands or to face a risk to reputation and relations.

What are the dimensions of sextortion and similar problems?

The answer, partly, lies in an analysis of the crime and crime-related statistics. However, this is not an easy task. The NCRB data for metropolitan cities during the period 2017-2019 showed an increase from 2,125 to 2,783 for all kinds of cybercrimes including sextortion. Sextortion data isn't collected separately and doesn't appear to be representative or correct.


Deviations from social norms have existed since times immemorial. However, despite broad concurrence, universally accepted definitions across cultures were elusive. Cultures developed their unique concepts of justice, and justice delivery too. Definitions of 'norms' and compliance or deviations therefrom have changed from being local deviations to universally acceptable ones. With this transition, the collection of statistics is becoming standardised.

Recording and documentation of deviations is a relatively recent phenomenon in society. Non-availability of crime statistics prevented holistic solutions. In the modern, wired world, crime statistics are important for devising intervention measures.

Diminishing crime: a fallacy

Crime statistics are redolent of the prevalent law and order situation. A perception has been created that increase in crime (at least statistically) synonymises worsening law and order. This, however, is a misconception – a misleading inference. On the contrary, a safer presumption would be that if crimes do not depict a northward trend, something is wrong somewhere. Diminishing crime is a fallacy. Controlling crime is an illusion.

Unfortunately, increasing crime figures are conveniently used for shadow-boxing and as a punching bag by all sides of the political spectrum. This scarcely helps, and the police hierarchy also falls into this trap, and hardly makes any effort to explain this contradiction to the civilian or political leadership or the public.

As a policeman, I can safely vouch that it is almost impossible to prevent a substantial number of crimes. Therefore, decreasing numbers are questionable. These are more like pointers and red flags to systemic ills elsewhere — more akin to treating symptoms and not the ailment. If we get the facts wrong, the diagnosis and medication will fail too.

Statistics, nevertheless, are important.

True numbers

If the emphasis is on tackling crime via statistics and deciphering crime trends and analysis, then it is imperative that crime figures should be honest – honestly reported by the public and honestly recorded by the police and law enforcement agencies. Undue pressure to control the 'crime figures' is counter-productive and portrays a falsehood.

When policemen and law enforcers tend not to register crimes, the immediate fallout is that the public – victims as well as other complainants — is discouraged from reporting deviations. This further leads to a trust deficit between the public and the police, and the policeman is handicapped — inaccurate data makes deciphering trends from information difficult. Undertaking appropriate interdictions becomes faulty too.

Faulty resource allocation

Even an unscientific mind would agree that since resource allocation in government depends upon the volume of work, faulty or under-reported data would mean that the allocation of resources would always lag behind what is optimally desirable. This statistical fudging explains why the police in India are overworked and resource-deficient. These, partly, are problems of our own making. For instance, the resources required for 10 cases of theft would be different from those required if the cases were 100. By maintaining an artificial control over statistics, police literally shoot themselves in the feet.

Privacy and under-reporting

Pressure on police to under-report and under-register is not the only grey area. Another disturbing dimension leading to distorted statistics is the 'privacy and reputation interface'. Instances like 'gender-crimes', especially crimes against women and cyber-crimes like sextortion (both genders) have reared their ugly heads in the recent past, contributing to distorted figures.

While some statutory insurance is available for safeguarding the interests and identities of the victims of traditional gender crimes, neo-crimes like sextortion haven't been addressed. Sextortion has become increasingly 'organised', and there are numerous victims and incidents out there vis-à-vis the reported numbers. Sextortion victims face a double whammy – if they don't report, they are doomed (money is extorted); if they report, they run the risk of their identities and reputations being leaked and maligned. More often than not, the victim is continuously plundered in mind, body and reputation and since often he/she himself has been complicit (in falling into the initial trap for satisfying his/her libido), and has acted in defiance of the socio-cultural mores and values, he/she is doubly hesitant to share or admit his 'sexual misadventures' with those whose trust he may have betrayed. Resultantly, the crime gets perpetrated — further emboldening the criminals. Most such crimes are not reported and therefore neither the seriousness is discernible, nor are the trends — or even the values.

Protecting privacy

There is, thus, a pressing need to address the privacy-reputation issue and formulate guidelines for 'protecting and safeguarding' the identities of the victims during the entire process of law enforcement and the judicial proceedings – prosecution, and even thereafter. These could be inbuilt into the witness programme or operate separately. The executive and the judiciary may proactively consider assigning alpha-numeric 'Non de plumes' (NDPs) — called 'code names' in common parlance — for the victims and complainants so that the victims have enough confidence that their identities and reputation are safeguarded. There is also perhaps a case for examining whether the assignment of NDPs could be made an essential component of the law enforcement process, where a victim or complainant could be given an opportunity to exercise the option ab initio, on whether he would opt for an allotment of NDP while filing a report to police or not. In-camera conduction of judicial processes for all or some such cases could also be considered. Blanking out the personal details and identifiers could be incorporated as legal safeguards during the entire process. The race to 'breaking news', media trials and 'source-based reports' — which are precocious and ill-informed — further strengthen the case for safeguarding not only the victims but also the accused persons; after all, a person should be presumed innocent until the guilt is conclusively established.

Perhaps assigning NDPs for victims and complainants, besides punitive legal provisions for those who violate the privacy guidelines, are also in order — similar to the safeguards existing in crimes like rape and offences against children.

Better privacy safeguards would help protect the interests of victims and complainants as well as of society as a whole because representative data would encourage uninhibited reporting, crime detection, investigation, prosecution and, subsequently, improved intervention strategies.

The writer is DG Prisons, Homeguards, Civil Defence and SDRF, Nagaland. Views expressed are personal

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