Mumbai Police's Social Media Monitoring Lab secretive and acting illegally?

“We shall only monitor, not censor. Our aim is to bridge the gap between the public’s expectations and delivery of police services, and maintain public order.” On 17 March 2013, when Satyapal Singh, Mumbai’s former Commissioner of Police, reassured the citizenry at the launch of the Social Media Monitoring Lab, there was reason for optimism, given the fact that rumours on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp can wreak havoc in a city still bearing the scars of perhaps the worst communal violence in India.

Going a step further, then Addl.CP (Protection) had said that “monitoring” was a bad word- the police was essentially trying to keep a tab on the pulse of the people in order to scale up deployment requirements and intervene better.

The stated goal is valid, though the means to achieve that are of contentious legitimacy because of the open declaration of maintaining surveillance. In such a scenario, transparency and legal safeguards are mandatory - to ensure adherence to the law and constitution, to prevent misuse of power and abuse of authority. And it’s here that the Lab is found to be severely wanting.

It’s provenance itself is worrisome. Reliance Foundation has bankrolled it, and trained the 20 odd officers manning it round the clock. That a private entity, that too one run by a business house not exactly renowned for its ethical practises should be colluding with the government in surveillance activities and accessing a humongous amount of very personal information and data, is dangerous, and potentially illegal. If the police indeed felt the need to operate such a lab, the state government should have made suitable budgetary allocations.

This concern pales in significance when one considers the lab’s modus operandi and recent instances of evident illegality.

Security and cyber experts have repeatedly warned of the inherent pitfalls of searching for potential miscreants and terrorists by trawling through large amounts of data - in this case, the conversations people are having over the Internet. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and often, the wrong guy gets caught in the dragnet. And knowing that they are being tracked, the real lawbreakers will be more guarded in their approach, and innocents will be inhibited in conversing freely. That’s what is called the “chilling effect” on freedom of expression, and it’s a form of censorship.

The most egregious flaw in the lab’s method is not how it goes on a website blocking spree, like it did in the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons controversy in January- in one fell swoop, reportedly 650 posts across different social media platforms were taken down - but Dhananjay Kulkarni, Mumbai Police spokesperson, admitted that every “controversial” post the monitors “came across”. The exact numbers were not disclosed, and till date the police haven’t come clear on whether it followed the Blocking Rules provided for in the Information Technology Act. And if that wasn’t enough, they were also on the lookout for the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of the computers and devices from which those posts have been made- that is, tracking each individual who had posted that content.

The real flaw is in the overtly aggressive and secretive approach. At a Rajya Sabha Committee’s hearing in October last year, Jt. CP Sadanand Date, who was heading the Cyber Crime Branch asserted that legal provisions regarding blocking of websites and protection of privacy were in fact impediments to policing and maintenance of law and order. He was candid in his support for bypassing, even violating them if need be. Date also emphasised upon the need for total secrecy for reasons of “national security”. It isn’t clear if the need for secrecy is so much that there’s no information about this lab in the Mumbai Police’s website. It is a part of the Cyber Crime Cell- that’s all the public is told. There is no way to even demand specific accountability- for one doesn’t know who the personnel are, or who are issuing orders.

So, the cops justify monitoring WhatsApp messages in order to smell danger and prevent communal flare-ups. All fine, provided there is compliance with the laws on phone-tapping, which mandate that permissions be secured from different authorities, and that only certain authorised agencies take such action. As of now, there’s no information if the Lab has been notified as one of those agencies, or if all the mandatory clearances are taken.

A 21 January incident makes this shroud of secrecy appear more sinister., a news and opinion website, received a notice from the UP Police, directing it to take down a “fake, baseless and defamatory” article which “violated the dignity of the police department.” That article in question was a 5 May 2011 report, dateline Mumbai, on female recruits at the Kolhapur Police Training Academy being sexually exploited by some trainer officers. Two legitimate questions arise here. Why did an almost four-years-old report suddenly attract attention? And, can the Mumbai or Maharashtra police authorities claim with certitude that they had no hand in this?

Till date, there has been neither acknowledgement nor redress of these grave concerns of police accountability.

Saurav Datta is associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Delhi, which works towards better policing. You can follow him on Twitter @SauravDatta29

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