Meet Dhanya Menon, a cybercrime investigator who is trying to make people aware about the need for vigilance while using the internet.
“Think 200 times before you trust the internet. I usually like to explain cybercrime prevalent among children by saying that if you give an atom bomb to a child and say ‘carry it in your pocket’, it is not the child’s fault if it bursts. It is our responsibility to be aware and conscious about the internet and teach our children to do the same,” says Dhanya Menon, India’s first woman cybercrime investigator.
A Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam dancer from Thrissur, Dhanya stumbled into the field of cybercrime investigation by mere chance. “I did not join because I was passionate about the job,” she is quick to clarify. Dhanya took up a regular job after graduating in Computer Science. She just wanted a job that would help her sustain herself while giving her ample time to practice what she was passionate about – dance. But fate had different plans. In the year 2002, her farsighted grandfather, then a Supreme Court advocate, came to know about the growing penetration of the internet in all walks of life and suggested that she study cyber law instead.
Dhanya took his advice and after attending a workshop on cybercrime, she went on to finish a post-graduate diploma course in Cyber Law and Intellectual Property Rights in Cyber Space.
“The beginning of my career was miserable. Some of the cases used to be worse than any fiction I have ever read. They shocked me. I couldn’t believe that something like this could be true. The cases took a toll on me professionally and emotionally,” she says. But once she was interested in the field after a few cases, there was no looking back.
Today, with over 15 years of experience in this field, the 39-year-old still finds herself most concerned about the way internet-users tackle the platform. “99.9 % of children who are victims or perpetuators of cybercrime are not involved in it because they want to be. They are just victims of accidents because they didn’t have any warning; they were not constantly reminded about it,” she says.
One of the cases that she is working on involves a young man facing abuse on Facebook. A stranger using the name of a woman started chatting with him about his life, friends, and various other issues. Their friendship slowly grew and developed to the extent that the two got on a video call. During the call, the woman recorded inappropriate video footage of the man. After this, she threatened to release the video on the internet unless he transferred a specific sum of money into her account.
“Asking how a person can stay protected on the Internet is like asking what are the ways to ensure or assure that there are no accidents on the road? How do you do that? You understand the road, you make sure that you don’t take any wrong steps, and you hope that the other person also does not make any mistakes. But there is no guarantee. So the basic requirement is to understand and learn the right ways of using this space called the Cyber Space,” she says adding that not many of us have actually bothered to give a moment’s thought to the safety features of different social media platforms.
She believes that instead of being reckless when posting information about yourself on the internet, one should learn about the safety features of that particular platform and change safety settings accordingly.
There is also the need to choose wisely when it comes to posting content on social media. “Here in cyber space, we are so careless that we are inviting problems. We are not aware that there can be issues, we are not conscious that we are not alone on this platform. We know the answers to all safety-related questions, but somehow we forget about them. There should a conscious reminder for ourselves and for people from the next generation whenever we are talking about using social media and the internet. Of course cyber investigators and laws are always there to help in the case of inevitable mishaps,” says Dhanya.
One of the cases that made her popular as the first woman cybercrime investigator was in 2008, when three schoolgirls in Kerala committed suicide because some boys from another school were blackmailing them with some pictures they had clicked on their phones.
She solved the case but was also very upset about the grave reality we live with.
In the year 2010, she founded Avanzo Cyber Security Solutions, a consultancy firm for cyber security. Today, her firm provides advice and guidance on cybercrimes. They are approached by people who are not sure about how to file complaints, collect evidence for court, etc. Additionally, Dhanya is also hired as the investigator by the government or by corporate firms for some cases.
Over the years, she has received cases from places like Pune, Mumbai, Kerala, Karnataka, etc., and Avanzo receives over 200 complaints on an average day. She comes across several cases related to obscenity, pornography, visual morphing from porn sites to create fake profiles, unauthorised use for confidential information, etc. She also conducts awareness programmes around cyber safety and topics like mobile misuse, identity theft, fake profiles, and piracy, in schools, colleges, corporate offices and state and central government departments.
While the dancer in 39-year-old Dhanya had to take a break for over a decade to concentrate on her career, she now practices regularly and has performed on stage over 200 times.
“The only alternative to cybercrime is to learn, learn and learn about the space. And be aware and conscious that you are actually using a space where there are a lot of other people too,” she concludes.