Mumbai cops trawl social spaces online

BY Rohini Lakshane| IN Digital Media | 27/03/2013
The lab intends to 'watch' publicly visible content, not private information.
But will it impact the privacy of citizens, asks ROHINI LAKSHANE
Earlier this month the  Special Branch of the Mumbai Police launched a social media laboratory that monitors blogs, forums, social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, and any other publicly accessible content, round-the-clock.
The surveillance facility, which is the first of its kind in the country is staffed by 20 police officers and was set up collaboratively with NASSCOM, DSIC (Data Security Council of India) and the Reliance Foundation. A police spokesperson said, at the inauguration of the lab, “By reading the mindset of what people are writing on various modes of communication, we will try to provide better and improved safety and security to the Mumbai citizens.”
The lab intends to watch publicly visible content, not private information. What are the implications of the presence of such a facility on surveillance and the privacy of citizens?  
Fallout of Delhi gangrape protests
The need for launching such as surveillance facility, according to the police, was felt following the protests held in the city earlier this year after the gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus in New Delhi. Calls for protests and demonstrations were made on Facebook and Twitter. Some protests were even planned using social networking websites.
Fuelled by general online conversation on the topic, the calls for action set off a chain of dominoes swelling the numbers in protests across the country. Using this surveillance lab, the Mumbai police want to be clued in to such protests and other forms of public assembly in real-time, and take measures to maintain law and order. The lab clearly aims to pluck the lowest hanging fruit -- information generated by citizens that is already freely and publicly accessible.
Technologically speaking, the lab will  take a month or so to be fully implemented. A police official told this writer, on condition of anonymity, that the lab uses automated tools, search engines and trawling software to keep track of keywords present in the copious stream of raw content posted on social spaces online. The department plans to procure monitoring and tracking software already used, mostly by commercial establishments, to extract meaningful and “actionable” information from large datasets or pools of information.
The data gathered could potentially be filtered for parameters such as geolocation and spliced and diced to arrive at patterns of activity. The capabilities to carry out localised surveillance would equip the police with an additional online intelligence arm.
Considering that most surveillance systems are interlocked with others, and that machinery to intercept private data already exists, it remains to be seen how data from the new lab is used for proactive policing now and in the future. Internet freedom activists have been wary of such efforts. As Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, said, "Police in the last four years have acted in an arbitrary and random fashion, often using the IT Act to settle political scores... When there's no crisis for the police, proactively keeping an eye on what people are saying or doing is overkill".
An application filed by activist Anivar Aravind under the RTI nearly two years ago had revealed that 23 databases were providing input to the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) that links databases of numerous government departments and ministries. The NATGRID was later removed from the purview of the RTI.
Implications for surveillaince
It is unclear if data from the social media lab would, in future, be interlocked with other surveillance systems. As of now, the police say data/ information gathered would not be made public or produced in a court of law. Comments and posts perceived as objectionable or detrimental to security would be reported to the cyber crime department of the police. The obvious fear arising out of the launch of the new lab is that the surveillance mechanism could ensnare netizens who aren’t really suspect.
As the projected idea behind the lab is to look out for trending topics that could affect security and law and order rather than monitor conversations between individuals, it is difficult to tell the fallout of the surveillance in terms of privacy. Should the functions of the lab extend to keeping tabs on groups, organisations or individuals on social networks online, it would require authorisation as per section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, which lays out rules for interception of computerised communication.
It is interesting to note that despite the keenness of the Mumbai Police to keep an ear to the social media ground, the police have not implemented a social media response system yet. The world over, police departments of big cities have a presence on Facebook and Twitter for numerous reasons -- sharing announcements and safety updates, sharing crime-related information, building relations with citizens and communities, helping address grievances, quelling misinformation with information, and so on.
Social networking websites provide a timely and fast means of communication between the people and the police. The unit for Women and Children of the Delhi police, the Gurgaon police, and the traffic police departments of Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Gurgaon, Chandigarh, and Bangalore are active on Facebook; some are present on Twitter. It is commendable that the Mumbai police are looking for ways to pre-empt crimes and untoward incidents and to listen to the buzz of the city. It would be a fine example of proactive policing if it used the social media to communicate with the citizens rather than watch over them.
(Rohini is a polyglot and a tech journalist with an engineering degree. When she is not subbing copy, you will find her editing Wikipedia, blogging, or going on a gastronomic trip.
Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More