Please tell us about yourself
“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.
When Dhanya Menon opted for a certified cybercrime course, way back in 2004, everyone around including her family tried to dissuade her. ‘What on earth is cybercrime, how will you ever get a job?’ were the questions thrown at her.
Dhanya was also the only woman in her class, and continued to be so for many more years in her field. “It was only after Kerala Police invited me to be one of the trainers for the installation of their Hi-Tech Cell that my family realised I am doing something worthwhile,” says the Thrissur native.
Dhanya, who started out with dealing eight cases a month in 2008, is bombarded with nearly 200 cases a day today, some of which are of national importance. And on Saturday evening, she received an award at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan from the President himself; she is one of the 100 women achievers, chosen to receive the national award instituted by the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare.
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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.
Q. What exactly kept you going in Cybercrime Investigation? How did you end up in an offbeat and unconventional career such as this?
To give you an idea of how early she arrived on the scene, Pattathil Dhanya Menon’s first case involved a fake profile on that pre-Facebook era player, Orkut. “The profile was created by a little boy for his teacher and mother because they often scolded and insulted him. So this was an act of revenge,” she says. The route that bought her to this point more than a decade ago was not a direct one. Menon was never really interested in law, even though her grandfather’s elder brother, also her godfather, a Supreme Court advocate, believed that this was the path for her. The computer science graduate from Thrissur, Kerala, got an MBA in retail management and was set on quite a different career path when she found herself drawn to reports of cybercrime, a phenomenon that a newly digital India was slowly waking up to.
Dhanya Menon, on being motivated by her Godfather, went on to attend a workshop on cybercrime. Little did she know that years later, she would be actually donning the investigator’s hat and become India’s first woman Cybercrime Investigator. Dhanya is a native of Thrissur, Kerala and a graduate in computer science. Here’s celebrating this fierce woman’s 15 years of experience as a Cybercrime Investigator.
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 . “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 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.
Q. A lady being a detective is unusual. How did you decide to become one?
Ans. It was never planned or even a dream that came true. A pure destiny or I would call it a sheer stroke of luck. My Godfather and my grandfather’s elder brother – P B Menon, who happened to be a senior advocate at Supreme Court, wanted me to pursue law which I didn’t. He was sure about the future of cyber law and suggested me to pursue this different path instead. This was 2002. I went on to earn a post-graduate diploma course in Cyber Law and Intellectual Property Rights in Cyber Space.
Luckily, his passion became mine and today I am here.
As I said earlier, I wasn’t passionate about this job. It happened to me. The good thing was that I had my mentor constantly thinking for me and guiding me, even while I was going through a bad marriage. Ironically, that phase of my life got me into doing this. But today I would not give up on this career because now I know I am doing something which makes a difference to one human somewhere every day.
As a child, I always wanted to be a dancer. I keep the dancer in me alive today as well, as dancing is the only passion I had since childhood.
Q. Tell us about your first case and the experience you learned from it?
Ans. The first case that I ever handled on social media was when an Orkut user had created a fake profile to get back at his teacher and mother who often scolded him or insulted him. He was just a little boy.
The lessons I have learnt are too many to pen down:
Never underestimate a little child
Life is stranger than any fiction ever read.
No emotions in work
Don’t take things personally
The human mind is the monkey
Q. Did your family support you on your dreams?
Ans. We still live together as a joint family. They are the strongest pillars for me without them I would have never been able to achieve this position. They are the biggest gift I thank God for every day.
Q. Do you need to have a background in law enforcement to be a Cybercrime Investigator?
Ans. It is not a requirement, but it surely helps.
Q. As we know, the internet is boosting but yet not secured for women and girls in general. What’s your solution?
Ans. Internet is not secured for any user. There is no gender discrimination in cybercrime. The thump rule is to learn how to use this technology. Awareness is the only solution.
Q. What was your most dangerous/memorable case?
Ans. It will be very difficult to segregate one that stands out. The most memorable one would be the first one always, like for any other professional and the most challenging one would be the one that I am dealing with at present.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
Q.What are the essential skills of a Cybercrime Investigator?
Ans. To be technically updated to the best of one’s ability. Be vigilant and stay wide awake
Tell us about your company
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.”