Sunday, January 3, 2021

"Inside India’s booming dark data economy"

 From Rest of World":

Thanks to lax privacy laws and high consumer demand, details on everything from how you shop to who you date are all for sale.

Ayushi Sahu was ambushed. One evening in 2018, five months after her wedding, the 21-year-old college student was visiting her parents in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, when her husband showed up unannounced, his father and uncle in tow.

As the men settled in the living room, her husband said he had something he wanted them to hear. He took out his mobile phone and pressed “play.” The audio was loud and clear: private conversations between Sahu and her friends and family, which had been recorded without her permission. And it wasn’t only audio: “call logs, SMS, and WhatsApp messages, each photo and video, recordings of my video calls — he claimed to have accessed everything,” Sahu said. That was when she realized that her husband had, for months, been spying on her.

This was also how Sahu learned of certain things he had been holding against her. (Her name has been changed to protect against retaliation.) He had been offended to hear her complaining to her mother about problems with her in-laws. And he objected to her talking to a male friend. “He made a scene as if he was ‘exposing’ me,” Sahu recalled. “I was just sharing my concerns. That’s normal.”

Her husband played several more recordings, until his father eventually intervened. “I don’t want to listen to any more of this. You have heard it all? Okay, then,” he said, before reaching out to comfort Sahu, who was still in shock.

After processing the experience, Sahu decided she was willing to shrug it off, apologize, and move on, but her new husband continued to behave strangely. Eventually, she felt she had no choice but to end the marriage. “I don’t understand why he had to take this spying route,” she reflected. “He could have just asked. You know, in India, men can scold their wives, right? He could have done that. What was the need to go so deep into my phone and record my conversations?”

Sahu has no idea how her phone was bugged or for how long she was surveilled. But she has one clue: Her Vivo smartphone was an engagement gift from her husband.

It is likely that Sahu’s phone had off-the-shelf spyware on it. Her husband may have installed it himself or even consulted a private detective before marrying her, who provided him with the phone. In either case, he would have been part of a growing trend of individuals — often, jealous lovers — making use of personal surveillance technology.

According to Kunwar Vikram Singh, the chairman of the Association of Private Detectives and Investigators in India, it’s now common for wealthy families to assess the suitability of a potential bride or groom by hiring a private detective, a vetting that usually costs around $500. He attributes this to India’s changing social mores, especially among urban elites. “Work culture has changed. Values have changed,” Singh reflected, citing the influx of women into the workforce as one contributing factor. “We tell people, ‘You spend lakhs and crores on marital ceremonies; spend a few thousand on investigators’,” he said.

Whatever the reason, India’s private-detective services have been growing over the past decade. Singh estimates that the sector is now worth roughly $1.2 billion nationally. But because of the sensitive nature of the field, it’s impossible to know for sure: There are no official statistics, and many clients still pay in cash. “They don’t want to leave any footprint,” he noted.

The services offered by the detectives mainly fall into two categories: corporate and personal. The corporate investigations often involve banks hiring investigators to get information on shifty borrowers and financial firms looking for background checks on employees. The personal services range from child monitoring to matrimonial background checks. Every agency has its own specialization. Karnam Choudhary, a Jaipur-based detective who operates the Siyol Detective Network, which has around 1,500 freelance private investigators across the country, says that “since 2016, personal cases make up almost 70%.”

The boom in business has coincided with a growing reliance on consumer-grade spyware. These are mostly smartphone apps that cannot easily be detected, secretly record all of a device’s activity, and route that data to a third-party dashboard. A private investigator’s first move used to be shadowing somebody in person; today, many of them begin by advising the client to present the object of their suspicion with a malware-infected smartphone.

Growing demand for spyware first caught the attention of India’s software engineers several years ago, long before the coronavirus pandemic led to a spike. In 2013, while researching viruses and cybersecurity for his final-year engineering project, Gujarat-based coder Tushar Mepani began meeting parents who wanted to keep closer tabs on their teenagers’ whereabouts. “I could not sleep at night when these millionaires told me about their kids’ behavior,” he said, apparently in earnest. The initial prototype of what became his first app for tracking children, EasySpyPhone, was restricted to recording calls and collecting text messages and location data, but more recent iterations can spy on social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, secretly turn on a phone’s microphone to record calls and video, and capture screenshots, all for around $20 or $40 per month. “Parents were very happy,” Mepani reflected. “They learned who their kids are friends with — and who is diverting them. The app has saved kids from being spoiled.”....