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Gujarat Police scan phones for porn in the absence of legal grounds

Instances of warrantless phone searches have cropped up in other cities too.

Gujarat Police is on a ‘digital combing’ drive of mobile phones belonging to passersby in the state’s Valsad district, according to a Times of India report. The drive meant to crack down on the circulation of porn is still on-going, Valsad Superintendent of Police Rajdeepsinh Jhala confirmed to MediaNama.

“We started digital combing as investigation because in most cases of sexual assault, especially in the district’s industrial areas, the offenders are porn addicts. We have asked residents in the area to report any suspicious behaviour in the area. If we receive any such reports, we ask the suspect to surrender their phone for a few minutes. Only if the person agrees, our officers scroll through their gallery and files to check for pornographic content.” – SP Jhala

Digital combing is going on in tandem with “normal combing” which he described as a stop-and-search procedure. The police have arrested and booked three individuals —Bapan Tudu (20), Tapas Tudu (21), and Jivan Hansada (19) — under relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code and IT Act, 2000. Cops got suspicious of the trio as they were keenly watching something on their mobile screens and they hid the devices as soon as they saw the cops, TOI revealed in its report.

SP Jhala said that the police officials are particular about consent. But under the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 or any other statute, they do not have the power to stop citizens and “request” that they unlock their mobile phones and proceed to search the contents of such devices to find evidence of any alleged illegal activity, said Tanmay Singh, senior litigation counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation.

Police search phones as a ‘precautionary measure’

Over the past few years, the police in other cities have also taken up similar drives:

  • Vijayawada: In the last week of April 2022, videos from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh showed policemen setting up checkpoints at working-class residential areas where pedestrians were being stopped and made to scan their biometrics, particularly retinas.
  • Bengaluru: Between December 2019 and February 2022, at least 21 Bengaluru residents claimed that they were harassed into giving up their phones to cops who found them “suspicious”, Newslaundry reported. Later, the Bengaluru Police denied receiving such complaints and the Bengaluru Commissioner of Police Kamal Pant tweeted that no policeman was allowed to check the mobile phone of any citizen under any pretext.
  • Hyderabad: Police in Hyderabad have been engaged in profiling since 2018 when reports emerged of cops asking random citizens for their biometrics based on “intuition”. In 2020, these cops allegedly used facial recognition data to pinpoint COVID-19 lockdown rule-breakers. Skip to October 2021, the city police set up checkpoints around the city where they stopped people whom they considered ‘suspicious’ and asked for their phones. Activists and lawyers have sent multiple legal notices to the commissioner’s office over the years but Hyderabad Police is yet to acknowledge them.

What to keep in mind if the police ask for your phone?

Here are a few pointers to remember if a police officer stops and asks you to hand over your phone, according to Singh:

  • Legally, a person is entitled to say no if the police ask them for their phone without a warrant or any valid reason
  • Police need to inform a citizen under what provision, suspicion, or offence they are searching their person
  • Alternatively, the police need a warrant or a court order to initiate such searches
  • A mobile phone is an extension of a person’s own self. As such, it is protected by Article 20(3) of the Indian Constitution which states, “No person accused of an offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself”
  • Use this right to remain silent during an emergency till your legal representative arrives, Singh suggested.

“However, even if a procedure exits on paper, it plays out differently in real life. When a cop pulls you over from going about your day to ask for your mobile, as a common man, there is a significant power differential that essentially nulls your consent.” – Tanmay Singh, IFF

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