The spy in cyberspace

Dhanya Menon, India’s first woman cybercrime investigator, shares her worries about the dangerous dimensions of her world

Updated - December 22, 2016 08:31 pm IST

Published - December 22, 2016 04:18 pm IST - MADURAI:

We need aggressive awareness campaigns says Dhanya Menon

We need aggressive awareness campaigns says Dhanya Menon

Don’t you become alert when your child goes near a pan of boiling water? The child also exercises caution because you would have warned him/her about possible injuries. But when you lovingly gift your child a mobile phone, tablet, desk top or iPad, do you have a similar conversation about the dangers lurking in cyberspace?

“No,” is Dhanya Menon’s vehement answer. Parents only worry about damage to the expensive gadget. “They rarely guide or monitor their child’s Internet or cell phone activity,” she declares. Dhanya’s vehemence is bolstered by her 15 years of experience as a cybercrime investigator. While some people are a bit concerned about the risks, thanks to some awareness building, she say that they are not doing anything to solve the problem.

“Even educators are not aware of the risks,” says Dhanya, herself the mother of a 16-year-old boy. “Then why do we give this atom bomb into our children’s hands and expect them to behave responsibly at an age that is potentially most vulnerable to risky behaviour?”

FIGHTING AGAINST CYBER MENACE: Cybercrime investigator Dhanya Menon

FIGHTING AGAINST CYBER MENACE: Cybercrime investigator Dhanya Menon

As somebody who was thrown into studying cyber law way back in 2002, the unprecedented spurt in cyber crime and prolific misuse of technology alarms her. “You can’t imagine the level of perversion in the misuse of social media,” says Dhanya. But she also admits that it was not entirely unexpected. The problem has reached its current dimensions because we refused to recognise its magnitude and match it with aggressive awareness campaigns, she notes.

At the turn of the millennium when the Internet was beginning to rule our lives, Dhanya, a Thrissur-based computer science graduate, was pushed to attend a workshop on cyber crime by her grandfather P.B. Menon, a well-known senior advocate of the Supreme Court. “The entire programme was like watching a James Bond movie,” recalls Dhanya. The then little-known subject appealed to her and she completed a certified post-graduate diploma course in Cyber Law and Intellectual Property Rights in Cyber Space and also became a faculty at the Asian School of Cyber Law, Pune.

In 2005, she began training programmes for corporates, police and other State and Central government departments, but she was also asked to investigate various cases. “On an average I would get five to eight complaints a day. Usually people did not know how and where to register a complaint pertaining to internet fraudsters or present evidence in court,” says Dhanya.

The case that upset her the most was the 2006 one in Kerala when three schoolgirls committed suicide in the classroom because boys from another government school were blackmailing them with photos taken on mobile phones. Though solving the case made her the first woman cybercrime investigator, she was troubled by the increasing number of cases related to obscenity, misuse of telephone technology, pornography and visual morphing from porn sites to create fake profiles, unauthorised disclosure of internal and confidential information, and theft or trade of intellectual property.

“My job became glamorous overnight, as people thought I was a powerful blend of Sherlock Holmes and Perry Mason in a man’s world. Only I could not explain to my family what exactly I was doing. They saw me jet-setting around the world for conferences and always working on half-a-dozen computers, laptops and mobile phones simultaneously,” says Dhanya, who tried to keep a low profile, as she was also being consulted on several sensitive cases of national importance.

Dhanya rues that her role ends with retrieving data to find out how and why the crime happened, tracing the cyber criminal and protecting clients from online threats. “Cybercrime specialists are like post-mortem doctors. We cannot do para policing. But the remedy is to sure that the law is enforced and that the culprits are punished under the IT Act 2000 that has been amended multiple times,” she says.

She also feels Section 66A needs to be properly used since the Internet is a vast area to locate a predator. “The spreading of purported content can be reduced to a large extent, if those who download or share it get punished. If there is no one to download fake content, who will upload it?” she asks.

Dhanya launched her own company, Avanzo Cyber Security Solutions, in 2008. “The proliferation of broadband has led to an increase in criminal activities. Education is the only tool we have. My aim is to make people, especially the youth and adolescents, aware of the vulnerabilities in the use of mobile phones, the Internet and social networking sites,” says Dhanya, who works with 400 schools across the country for her prevention of cybercrimes campaign.

“Not that Internet has only wrong information. It is about giving it at the right age to our children with proper guidelines,” says Dhanya, adding that adults too live in an illusion of privacy and are equally vulnerable. “The human element is the weakest link in our security chain,” she says, “and it is best to always think and then click.”

The dancer in Dhanya Menon

Dhanya Menon as Mohini Attam performer

Dhanya Menon as Mohini Attam performer

Dhanya Menon, was initiated into the world of dancing at the age of three and grew into a seasoned Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam dancer. She did her arangetram at the age of six. “I always loved dancing though it took a backseat for education and job,” she says. Now when her high-profile job as a cybercrime investigator sends her on an emotional low given the nature of crimes involving children, she seeks refuge in dance. The occupational hazards that her job comes with, Dhanya has consciously reinvented herself as a professional dancer and given over 200 stage performances across the globe. “To keep my sanity, I have to juggle time to practice my steps,” she says, adding how dance, even though requires lot of research and travel, helps her to maintain the rhythm and balance in life.

Such is her passion for the art form, that Dhanya has also established Saalabhanjika, a studio for arts and performance to impart training in South Indian classical dance forms to budding artists. The centre also conducts workshops on fading dance styles (like devadasi in Kuchipudi) and national level dance competitions.

Cyber Safety

Cybercrime investigator Dhanya Menon was invited by the Madurai chapter of Soroptimist International to address its members on cyber safety. As founder director of Avanzo Cyber Security SolutionsPvt.Ltd., she worries about the increasing cases of cybercrimes. “I receive 200 complaints on an average per day from all over the country now,” she says. Apart from handling complaints and solving cases, Dhanya has taken it upon herself to educate the general public on issues related to misuse of cell phones and internet. She is working exclusively with schools to improve learning outcomes for young people in this area. So far, Dhanya has introduced Cyber Awareness Programme in over 400 schools that makes teachers and students aware of cyber related do’s and don’ts. With access to infinite vistas of cyber space, children are exposed to cyber bullying and online harassment at a tender age now,” says Dhanya. The workshops aim at sensitising children from class IV to XII and create 12 areas of awareness including mobile misuse, identity theft, fake profiles, piracy, E-mail abuse, cyber stalking, defamation, cyber terrorism, child pornography, addiction and depression.

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