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Hyderabad Police scanning WhatsApp chats of passersby raises privacy outcry

The Hyderabad City Police is reportedly stopping people in certain hotspots of the city and going through their WhatsApp chats to find words like ‘marijuana’, as a measure to crack down on the usage and sale of the drug in the city.

First reported by Hyderabad-based Urdu daily Siasat, the Hyderabad Police has set up these checkpoints at various parts of the city including Jummerat Bazaar, Bhoiguda Kaman, Dhoolpet, Mangalhat, and so on. As per the video, the cops, working in three different shifts, appear to be stopping people whom they consider to be ‘suspicious’, checking their motorcycle or scooter, and asking for their phones.

“We are checking people’s phones. If we find any chats related to ganja, we are sending them to the police station,” said a police constable at a checkpoint to Siasat.

 

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The Hyderabad City Police has had a history of introducing tech-related invasive measures that seemingly do not have any legal backing. For instance, in 2019, officials of Hyderabad’s South Zone (Charminar and other areas) used facial recognition on random citizens. Recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave, Telangana police took up drone surveillance to maintain lockdown measures.

Operation started months ago: Hyderabad Police official

In the West Zone of Hyderabad, especially the Mangalhat area which is purportedly notorious for the sale of ganja, the West Zone police deployed 5 teams in 67 identified hotspots. “So initially in the very first days, we caught hold of 100 young boys who came to buy ganja. What we did is we took their phones, went through their details, called their parents, started counseling them,” a senior police official told MediaNama on the condition of anonymity.

This official refused to accept reports that police officials were stopping random citizens and that they were asking for their phones. He said, “We are only checking WhatsApp, GPS details of the accused persons. Whatever going around (reports), they are not correct,” the official claimed.

He claimed that those persons who are being stopped were outsiders. “We definitely understand who is an outsider and who is a local fellow. We are trying to now curtail the influx of traffic (people coming to the area for buying ganja),” he added.

Hyderabad commissioner defends move, indicates video is ‘fake’

Taking cognisance of the outrage prompted by the viral video, city police commissioner Anjani Kumar defended the move of the police.

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“In few cases of grave and sensational crime when the accused is likely to run away, police checks all the items at the scene of the crime or available with one of the offender who is caught. At that time we do not know who the gang members are, who the accomplices are. Whatever item is found it is examined immediately,” Kumar said. He said that items can be —

  • Laptop
  • Hard disk
  • Pendrive
  • Camera

“Everything is part of digital evidence,” he said adding that such operations are being taken up to arrest partners of offenders who have not yet been arrested or are absconding.

Kumar tries to indicate that video was fake: Without directly talking about the Siasat video, Kumar blamed WhatsApp for the spread of “morphed” videos. “When a video is morphed, under what context the cut and paste is done — all these things are hard to impossible to verify immediately. In a city as big as Hyderabad, there are usually 50,000 such video uploads (every day). It is practically impossible for the police to verify each and everyone of them,” the commissioner said.

Meanwhile, South Zone deputy commissioner of police, Gajarao Bhupal was quoted by The NewsMinute as saying, “Yes, I am aware that phones are being checked. However, we are not forcing anybody nor are we snatching away their phones to check. People are cooperating and no one is complaining, so I don’t think there is anything illegal.”

But when MediaNama contacted Bhupal, he responded to our queries by saying, “There is a lot of speculation around the matter.” He did not provide any further explanation.

What does the law say?

Present laws are subject to several procedural conditions: “In accordance with the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, even the Power of entry, search, seizure and arrest without warrant or authorization; Power to stop and search conveyance; as well as Power of seizure and arrest in public place (sections 42, 43 and 49), are subject to several procedural conditions and embargoes so as to keep a check on the powers of law enforcement bodies prescribed as per established law,” Kritika Seth from Victoriam Legalis said.

This event makes us believe that ‘privacy and personal liberty’ is at the mercy of state. Landmark judgments like ‘K.S. Puttaswamy’, making privacy as a fundamental right are on the verge of dilapidation. Since the Personal Data Protection Act is sometime away from coming into force, these acts by the state instruments without any order/authority or force of law are vehemently condemned and makes even more essential for the Act to come into force much sooner — Utsav Trivedi, Partner, TAS Law

What does the Code of Criminal Procedure say? “As per the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC, section 91(1)), such searches can be carried out only upon there being a summons order issued by a Court of law or written order issued to the concerned person by an officer in charge of the police station,” Seth said.

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In view of this, considering the facts and circumstances, as reported, such an act by police to stop random passers-by, who may not even fall within the ambit of accused persons or suspects, as per the facts and circumstances, and search for key words in their WhatsApp chats, does not appear to be a measure taken in compliance with the procedure established by law. It follows that such activities can seriously vitiate an individual’s fundamental right to privacy as guaranteed within the scope of Art 21 of the Constitution of India — Kritika Seth, Victoriam Legalis

Outrage on social media

22-year-old activist Disha Ravi who was arrested by Delhi Police in Bangalore for sharing a Google Drive doc with resources for participating in the 2020–21 farmer protests with Greta Thunberg, said this:

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Other instances of Hyderabad Police using invasive tech

Facial recognition: In 2019, several police stations in Hyderabad took out facial recognition drives. The then ACP of Falaknuma police station Mohammed Abdul Rafeeq had said that cops, based on intuition, approached people they thought might be suspects. These “suspects” are then asked to verify if they are criminals or not by providing their fingerprints and facial data to the police, Rafeeq had said.

Drones in districts of Telangana: During the second wave, a few district police teams in Telangana used drones, in some cases equipped with sirens, for surveillance and for keeping an eye out on lockdown violators.

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Artificial Intelligence in CCTVs of Hyderabad: Around 2,000 CCTVs out of the 350,000 within the Hyderabad district limits have been enabled with artificial intelligence to monitor mask violators. Many questioned the security of the servers where this information was being stored, and many raised privacy concerns.

Legal notice to Hyderabad City Police Commissioner: In a legal notice served by a Hyderabad-based social activist to Hyderabad City Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar, the Hyderabad Police was asked to stop using artificial intelligence-based tools especially facial recognition systems, for enforcing lockdowns.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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