When Pattathil Dhanya Menon joined the Asian School of Cyberlaw in 2003, she had no clue what the course was about, neither was she enthusiastic about it. “I joined only because my maternal grand uncle, or rather godfather, who was a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India, asked me to. He was one of the few who supported me and I needed that support. I was young and in debt. I didn’t have a proper job and was juggling real estate, insurance, dance choreography – everything possible to make ends meet. Plus I was a single mom to my son as my marriage was breaking down,” she recalls.

Her godfather had faith in her though, and presented her with a check to fund the course. “If there’s one thing I can do well, it’s studying, even now. So I registered for the course – Cyber Law and Cyber-crime Investigation – without realising its enormous scope,” she says. It was a time when internet was expensive and unavailable. “My ex-husband and I were running a computer education centre prior to the course where only one system had internet, which was to teach students about email. It had cost us some 8-9 lakhs just to get the underground cables fitted for broadband. Escotel was the only service available,” she recalls.

But within two months of joining, all the students, who were the first batch for the course, started getting assignments. “In all honesty, I just wanted financial stability initially, and I realised I could get it as a cyber-crime specialist. There was great demand for them but very few available. The Asian School would ask us to take classes and training sessions for the police, and the next day, we would be flooded with cyber-crime case files from them,” she says.

There was no looking back since for Dhanya, a native of Thrissur, ho started out as a model, dancer and small screen actress before she did a 180 in her career. It turned out that Dhanya was the first girl to join the course, and 18 years later, she is known as India’s first woman cyber-crime investigator, received the president’s award for the same, and has her own cyber-security agency, named Avanzo. “Above all, my godfather lived to see me flourishing in my career. An article about me appeared in a newspaper once where it was mentioned that I was the granddaughter of a supreme court advocate. I found it framed in his office, where he had highlighted that line. There is no award bigger than that,” says Dhanya.

While Dhanya has been labelled as an investigator, technically her job portfolio is digital evidence retriever and presenter. However, being a cybercrime specialist can be emotionally draining, just like for the police, she says. “Reality can be stranger and at times more horrifying than fiction. The cases which stay in my memory are the ones from the earlier stages of my career, as you tend to distance from them over time. There was a case where spycam videos of a teenage girl from within her house, surfaced online. The family contacted us and we started questioning the usual suspects – the driver, electrician etc. However, the police officer in charge felt it could be an inside job. He separately questioned the girl’s teenager brother and the maid. Soon after, he asked me to check the boy’s room. It had never occurred to me in the wildest of dreams but we found the equipment. It was her own brother who had been recording videos of her and selling it online. And the parents knew nothing about it.”

The effect of such cases, especially those involving children, can be long lasting, and like many in her profession, she has sought the help of therapists, she says. “Initially, I would bring the baggage home. The subject was a 7-year-old child once and I could only see my then 7-year-old son in that child. I would feel the need to keep checking on the subjects to see if they were sleeping well and would get upset when they wouldn’t respond. But they would have moved on, though not me. I realised that I should treat subjects as subjects. Emotional investment doesn’t help the case either. I needed a lot of psychological training to stop myself from doing that.”

Also, there is no such thing as a family or situation returning to normal after such incidents and we should just accept that, she says. “The silver lining for me was that I had a lot of personal problems and so I didn’t have the time to dwell too much on the cases.”

Crime involving organisational security are always easier because there is no need for emotional investment, she says. “It might be 2 lakhs or 200 crores, but at the end of the day, it’s just money.”

While Dhanya takes care not to invest emotionally anymore, she is taking steps to raise awareness among children through her agency. “We have a whatsapp number where youngsters can contact us for advice. In most cases they just need a reassurance that they are safe. They just wanted to understand how things work,” she says.

The only way forward is to educate the young generation on how to handle the online space, she says. “We are in an age where six-year-olds are being taught coding. But parents continue to stay in a state of denial and think nothing will happen to their child. And that’s a reason why schools are unable to fund our awareness sessions. All of us are addicted to this space and there is no one who is not vulnerable.”

What Dhanya has to tell the layman is to practise data hygiene, and make it part of one’s life. “With the development in technology, data privacy only comes down. In India we never even discussed such a concept until Whatsapp rolled out its regulations.”

Why is it that social media platforms seem to guess what we are thinking and show us ads of products we never searched for? “Every social media platform stores our data. If you hold a particular content on screen for more than two seconds, it means you noted it, and the system records it. This data is used for pushing ads,” she says. “You feel you only thought about it but you actually did more.”

So what can we do about it? “Just like we organize the contents of our handbag, we can organize the different services we use. We wouldn’t just keep credit cards lying loose in the bag, right? Banking can be done in a different device or with a different connection so that the apps don’t communicate with each other. Each person has to can assess the risks and prioritise accordingly.”

Data privacy is nothing new, and IT just simplified it, she says. “Earlier they would laboriously collect your preferences by checking what magazines or papers you subscribe to. Now it’s easier, that’s all.”

Meanwhile, Dhanya finds time for her passion, dance, and says nothing energises her like the stage, whether it’s a live dance performance or a live session about cyber-crime. Her son, Pranav, is doing his undergraduation and plans to take up law later on.

Despite all her accolades, people around her weren’t sure what exactly her profession was, and would harp on her single status, she says. “Nobody would mess with me but for years, people used to humiliate my parents by asking them intrusive questions about me and sympathizing with them. The National Award was what changed all that.”

Dhanya received the Award for being the first woman cyber investigator in 2018, as
part of an initiative by the Ministry for Women and Children to award 100 Indian women for various firsts – the first woman surgeon, the first woman merchant navy captain etc. “That was the point when people realized I’m doing something worthwhile. And thankfully, my father lived to see it. He passed away in May the same year but died a very proud dad,” Dhanya signs off.