The Jammu and Kashmir Police is looking for “cyber volunteers”, who can flag content on social media that is “anti national”, or promotes “radicalisation”, among other things, and report those to the government. Apart from that, the police is also looking to onboard volunteers who can create awareness about cybercrimes, and cyber experts for dealing with specific domains of cybercrime, forensics, network forensics, malware analysis, memory analysis, and cryptography among others. Free speech advocates fear the move may have a chilling effect on online speech, and result in increased self-censorship.
Multiple calls made to the Jammu and Kashmir cybercrime cell went unanswered till publication.
That the statement comes from the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, which has been subject to unprecedented online communication curbs since the abrogation of its statehood in August 2019, makes it even more significant. A ban on high-speed 4G mobile internet in the region—which was in place for well over 550 days—was lifted on February 6. Journalists have also been slapped with sedition charges in Jammu and Kashmir and arrested for allegedly sharing “anti national” content on social media.
The program to recruit such cyber volunteers was launched by the Union Home Ministry for “facilitating law enforcement agencies in identifying, reporting and removal of illegal / unlawful online content”. The Delhi Police, which falls under the control of the Union Home Ministry, has already recruited such cyber volunteers to amplify their social media posts, especially on Twitter.
No disclosure of relationship with govt allowed
Interestingly, volunteers recruited as part of this program can not publicly disclose their relationship with the Home Ministry. Some other terms and conditions the Ministry places on these “cyber volunteers”:
- They can not issue any public statement about their association with this program
- They are “strictly prohibited” from creating social media accounts in the name of this program, or issue any statement about this program, or pursue discussion or share their work or express opinions on public platforms on behalf of this program
- They will have to maintain strict confidentiality of task assigned to them as a part of this program.
“Any Indian citizen can get himself/herself associated by registering in any of three categories of cyber Volunteer. Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger- for identifying online illegal/unlawful content like child pornography, rape/gang rape, terrorism, radicalization, anti national activities etc. and reporting to government. Cyber Awareness Promoter- for creating awareness about cyber crime among citizen including vulnerable groups like women, children and elderly, rural population etc. Cyber Expert- for dealing with specific domains of cybercrime, forensics, network forensics, malware analysis, memory analysis, cryptography etc.”, said a statement issued by the Jammu and Kashmir Police.
This is the registration process:
- People can register to the program on the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal, and will have to provide details such as their name, mobile number, email, and address, among other things. They will also have to upload a government-authorised ID proof like Aadhaar or passport.
- There will be no prior verification of documents of people signing up as “cyber volunteers” — the people who will report “anti national” and other “unlawful” content to the government. That is required only for people signing up as cyber awareness promoters or cyber experts.
- After a person registers, their details will be accessible to Jammu and Kashmir’s nodal officer for cybercrime, the IGP of Jammu and Kashmir’s crime branch.
‘This could lead to various forms of discrimination’
“The direct effect of such initiatives being promoted/initiated by government/public organisations, especially in this case the unlawful content flagger is that it leads to intrusion of privacy and a chilling effect on the freedom of speech -leading to self censorship,” Shubhika Saluja, an independent researcher interested in tech policy, told MediaNama.
A paper published by the Centre for Internet and Society in January, which was co-authored by Saluja and Mira Swaminathan, said that such “lateral surveillance” threatens the two most fundamental rights of citizens in any modern democratic state — the right to free speech and the right to privacy.
“It may lead to intrusion of privacy, if checks and balances are not imposed and also threatens those who express dissent,” the paper said. Lateral surveillance is essentially people watching over other people, and diminishes the hierarchy between the proverbial “watcher” and the “watched”. The paper examined the issues and challenges with lateral surveillance.
There is also a possibility that societal norms and biases may seep through in the digital decisions taken by these cyber volunteers, Saluja said. “…the problem mostly exists at the societal level wherein the majority determines the so called ‘reasonable behaviour’ and then anyone who seems to be acting in a different way or non-majority way of acting is reprimanded in ways such as being reported to the police etc.,” she said.
“Further it leads to various forms of discrimination, in this case it would be on the internet but the effect of it will be seen offline wherein a certain message/post when reported, the person who posts such messages might have the threat of being physically harmed. Most of these problems are not guaranteed to happen but become more likely,” she told MediaNama.
(Shubhika Saluja made her remarks in a personal capacity and is no longer associated with the CIS)
*Update at 6:07 PM, Feb 8: We had misspelled Shubhika Saluja’s name, and have updated the story with the correct spelling. Error is deeply regretted.
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