Cyber Crime

That the existence of democratic space and liberal discourse is shrinking in today’s India is a naked truth. Rabid polarization, communal disharmony, crony capitalism and stringent crack down of all the opposing voices against the government are realities of the day. With laws being thwarted and manipulated, brazen attempts to compromise the integrity of the legislature, executive, judiciary and the media are on full display. A 24×7 operating propaganda machinery ensures that the dubious motives of the ruling party are fulfilled, no matter how grave and atrocious the violations of people’s rights are. From religious discrimination in the form of CAA-NRC against Muslims to anti farmer laws, from anti trade union stand to flouting of environmental rules and tribal rights, the present dispensation is unleashing all its might in converting a democratic secular republic to an authoritarian dystopia.

Executions of new online and offline tactics go a long way in cementing and sustaining the idea of such a shrewd totalitarianism to continue masquerading as a benevolent democracy. The recent notification of Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) under the Ministry of Home Affairs inviting Cyber Crime Volunteers is one such stealth weapon bearing unlimited potential in pitting citizens against each other. As per the notification, any Indian citizen could get associated by registering in any of three categories of cyber volunteer – Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger for identifying online illegal and unlawful content like child pornography, rape and gang rape, militancy, radicalization, anti-national activities and reporting to the government; Cyber Awareness Promoter for creating awareness about cyber crime among citizen including vulnerable groups like women, children and elderly, and rural population; Cyber Expert for dealing with specific domains of cybercrime, forensics, network forensics, malware analysis, memory analysis and cryptography.

As per the ministry, the programme will be initially rolled out in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and the North Eastern state Tripura, and after verifying the implementation feedbacks, it will be gradually extended throughout the country. Regarding the registration of volunteers, the portal says that those who sign up cannot use this programme for any commercial gain or issue any public statement about their association. They are also “prohibited from using the name or claiming association” with MHA on any public platform. It says the volunteer shall “maintain strict confidentiality of task assigned/carried out by him /her.” Also the registration seeking form says the State Nodal Officer of States/UTs also reserves the right to take legal action against the volunteer, in case of violation of terms and conditions of Cyber Volunteer Program. To participate, the portal demands willing citizens to furnish personal details, including name, details of the parents, contact details and email address. However, these will not be verified separately.

A basic reading of this notification itself raises numerous questions regarding the framework of operation, authenticity of procedures, accountability of the participants and those above them, and the constitutional and legal validity of rolling out such an exercise. For instance, let’s look at a few keywords specified – radicalization, anti national activities etc. Who defines the meanings of these words that have wider connotations in different contexts? How the interpretation will be done and shared? And even if it is done, how will it be ensured that such an interpretation is in lines with the existing legal and constitutional values? In a socio political environment filled with hatred and other-ing, what is the guarantee that people will not use such a dubious position to settle personal and political vendetta against each other?

Another grey area is the secrecy with which the volunteers will be operating. As they are not supposed to reveal their association with the government or their role in the programme, an ordinary citizen might never be able to guess the real intention of a person sitting next to him or her, who could actually be a cyber volunteer. It could be a relative, or a friend, or a neighbor and one may not be able to spell out a word against the government or its policies fearing the consequences. Personal, professional and social life will have to be spend with one’s lips zipped. Every single outlet of expressing one’s opinion, including the social media platforms shall be monitored and reported by the government’s “agents.” Isn’t this a blatant violation of Article 19(1) and 21 of the Indian constitution that offers us the fundamental right to freedom of speech, and right to life and liberty respectively? Isn’t this an infringement on the basic human rights as enshrined in the UDHR? Doesn’t this also amount to ignoring the Supreme court verdict in Shreya Singhal Vs Union of India, that struck down Sec 66A of the Information Technology Act (which had provisions of Punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service, etc )?

Under a discourse charged with toxic religious majoritarianism and hyper nationalism, equipping people with such uncontrolled power to flag anyone without any accountability is nothing less than scratching the head with matchsticks. Remember, this citizen spy network is in addition to the already existing surveillance tools employed by the state (like Aadhar and other biometrics) and its partners (including the domestic and global tech giants) in multitude ways. Even if for the sake of argument one agrees to the genuineness of some of its provisions like prevention of rape, gang rape, child pornography etc., what is the guarantee that such provisions won’t be misused by religious fanatics and conservatives against people opting for inter-caste or inter religious marriages, homosexuals, women and children? One can also not ignore the further human rights violations it would result in heavily militarized and AFSPA prevailing border regions like J&K and the North East where the programmes’s test dose will be served.

Considering the above concerns among others, at this juncture it would be better for the government to emphasize at least on Article 38(1) of the Indian constitution which says “the State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life.” It should remember that without a free, politically conscious, and participatory citizenry no democracy can survive. So in the interest of democracy and civility, the government-if at all intending to proceed further with this program- should at least ensure necessary  safeguards against its possible misuse, if not nipping it in the bud. Or else the Frankenstein monster this citizen Gestapo unleashing will only take the country to incorrigible depths of barbarity.

Lekshmi Sujatha is an independent writer


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