Eyes of the Nation: Peer-to-peer surveillance in India

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Surveillance by governments and private firms into the lives of the citizens is a growing concern across the world. The Orwellian state makes use of its own resources: It recruits private actors and its own citizens to spy and keep a watch on each other.

In this blog we focus on cyber-community policing through cyber volunteer programme under the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) of Indian Ministry of Home Affairs. In a press release of January 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that 3,900 police stations across India have been connected with the police’s National Cybercrime Reporting Portal. As highlighted by the Indian civil society organization Article 14, concerning about the programme is the use of “cyber volunteers to flag online content”. The Portal, even a year after its inception, does not provide sufficient information as to what the role and responsibilities of a cyber volunteer is, but instead lays out that any “unlawful act” in online space can be reported. Under the scheme, an “unlawful act” is broadly defined as content that violates any law in force in India. It further lays seven broad categories of “unlawful online acts”:

i. Against sovereignty and integrity of India 

ii. Against defence of India 

iii. Against Security of the State 

iv. Against friendly relations with foreign States 

v. Content aimed at disturbing Public Order 

vi. Disturbing communal harmony 

vii. Child Sex Abuse material 

For category seven content, a separate section “Report Child/Women related crime” is provided on the portal, where one can report such content anonymously. For the other six categories, the reporting person must register themselves as a cyber volunteer. The I4C scheme allows anyone to become a cyber-volunteer and does not require a background check or training. Volunteers are advised, but not required, to study Article 19 of the Indian Constitution which include the freedom rights, along with the right to freedom of expression [19(1)]. 

Several CSOs and civil liberties advocate have raised concerns that the arbitrary nature of recruitment of volunteers without identify safeguards, trainings or background checks allows street-vigilantism to transpose online. This may entail the use of the platform by troll-armies, persons with personal vendetta, and ideological groups to use a crime reporting system for their personal and political gains. The scheme does not attempt to mitigate such risks. These risks comes in light of the fact that the government of India has consistently failed to provide adequate privacy laws that would set the limits for India’s intelligence and cybersecurity services.  

The I4C scheme and the absence of privacy laws is particularly worrisome as those volunteers recruited by Indian security actors, such as the police, have tended to be disproportionately drawn from fringe groups who ferociously oppose minorities’ right to express dissent. In January 2020, investigative journalists published a unique interview with a member of a local Hindu extremist group, the Hindu Yuva Vahiniwho had been recruited as a “friend of police” (police mitra), and boasted that he had received the task to physically assault protestors objecting to a discriminatory law, the CAA, in late 2019.  

While India’s Ministry of Home Affairs emphasised that the programme is “purely volunteer” with no monetary benefits, recruitment as a police mitra or content flagger signify “moral distinctions of good citizenship”, thereby rewarding those who expand the discipline of the state. This cyber-community policing model is therefore extremely potent for nationhood projects such as that by Hindu nationalists; as opposed to the Chinese example, in which good citizenship is rewarded through additional programs such as social credit system and surveillance is conducted by third parties, the cyber-community policing model of India includes a select type of citizens as an extension of the state.  

The I4C scheme directly tasks citizens with seeking out content that can then be flagged not to Facebook, but to the Indian government. As Lucia Zedner writes, all branches of the government, including the police, must point out security threats in order to legitimise their existence. As such, states must highlight that something, i.e. security, is in lack, and create images of objects to be secured from. As such, Indian counter-terrorism laws permit constructing a wide range of acts as security threats; the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), Subsection 2(o)(iii) for instance, makes any action that causes “disaffection against India” a non-bailable offence. Notably, the I4C volunteers are asked to monitor social media for “unlawful content”, such as “anti-national activities”. Actively telling citizens to identify and create threats to be secured from permits them to use these over-inclusive definitions to report to the police as criminal even such posts that, for instance, express disapproval of the government’s vaccination policies. Overall, the program “responsibilizes” citizens and creates a “vigilant public” – which notably has the same root as the words “vigilante”, and vigilante justice. The lack of due process and arbitrariness of methodology adopted for the scheme is telling of the growing authoritarian agenda which aims at silencing content and dissent being seen in India over last few years.  

This blog is a part of ‘Digital Watch- India’ series of Foundation London Story

  • Alena Kahle is a Junior Consultant at the Foundation London Story
  • Dr. Ritumbra Manuvie, is Lecturer of Law at the University of Groningen