Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir Police is setting up a task force of ‘cyber volunteers’ who will patrol social media and flag posts on “radicalisation” and “anti-national activities” among other issues to the government.
Free speech activists and lawyers are worried that the scheme will put more curbs on the freedom of expression in Kashmir, legitimise vigilantism and create more divisions in an already polarised society.
The controversial move comes nearly three years after the Ministry of Home Affairs, on the directions of the Supreme Court, launched a cyber crime portal for identifying content related only to child pornography and cases of sexual harassment against women and children on online platforms.
In a press statement on Wednesday, the J&K Police asked netizens to “register as volunteer through a dedicated section ‘Cyber Volunteers’ on National Cybercrime Reporting Portal” which was relaunched on August 30, 2019 by the home ministry to include all kinds of cyber crimes.
“Under this initiative, any Indian citizen can get himself/herself associated by registering in any of three categories of Cyber Volunteer. Cyber Volunteer Unlawful Content Flagger- for identifying online illegal/unlawful content like child pornography, rape/gang rape, terrorism, radicalization, anti national activities etc. and reporting to government,” the J&K Police statement said.
A senior police officer, who spoke with The Wire on the condition of anonymity, said that due to the massive proliferation of social media and “increased workload” in “resource constrained” situations, the cyber volunteers will act as an “extra set of eyes and ears” in the virtual world for the police force.
“They will enhance the law enforcement capabilities of the police force and also help in trust building as the interface between them as representatives of the public and the cops increases,” said the officer, who is not authorised to speak to the media.
According to officials, the volunteers “shall be required to furnish some mandatory personal particulars like full name, father’s name, mobile number, email address, residential address etc, identity proof and address proof at ‘Upload ID Proof’ tab in registration from.”
There will be no verification process for volunteers who sign up as ‘Unlawful Content Flagger’. However, the antecedents of the individuals who join as ‘Cyber Awareness Promoter’ or ‘Cyber Expert’ will be verified, police said.
As per J&K police statement, the ‘Cyber Awareness Promoter’ will create “awareness about cyber crime among citizen including vulnerable groups like women, children and elderly, rural population etc” while ‘Cyber Expert’ will deal with specific domains of cybercrime, forensics, network forensics, malware analysis, memory analysis and cryptography among other.
Once a volunteer registers, the police statement added, his details would be accessible to IGP Crime Branch J&K, who is the newly created UT’s nodal officer for cybercrime.
The idea of cyber volunteers for law enforcement appears to an eerie replication of the concept of ‘Citizen Corps’ that gained traction around the world and especially in the United States following the 9/11 terror attacks.
In the 9/11 aftermath, many countries started police volunteers programmes that were designed to involve ordinary citizens in patrolling neighbourhoods and shopping centres, collecting evidence as well as checking on homebound Muslims and migrants in the country.
However, these programmes ran into controversies and backfired severely in some cases when it turned out that people or activities flagged by the police volunteers were based less on facts and more on rampant Islamophobia that followed in the country after one of the worst terror attacks in history.
Human rights activist and author Harsh Mander believes that the concept of cyber volunteers is “part of a larger enterprise for vigilantes who are “already on ground” and “in the internet now”.
“By having an Army of cyber volunteers, the government is only trying to legitimise vigilantism,” said Mander.
The use of volunteers for cyber patrolling raises legal and ethical questions, said lawyer Habeel Iqbal, who practices in a south Kashmir district.
“This scheme looks like a reincarnation of the now repealed Section 66A of the IT Act. It is not clear where this scheme draws its authority and power from, and it must be challenged,” Habeel said.
“It is a worrying development,” said Mander, “because it reminds us of Nazi Germany where people were encouraged to spy and report on their neighbours, thereby creating divisions within societies.”
Citing the instance of Uttar Pradesh, Mander said Yogi Adityanath had raised a Hindutva militia force that he “wanted to keep in existence” after becoming the chief minister of the state with the largest Muslim population in the country.
“They now have a system called ‘police mitra’ which is basically composed of vigilante groups around the issues of cow slaughter and love jihad. By giving them official sanction and recognition, the lines between vigilante groups and state authorities have blurred,” he said.
Habeel, the lawyer who was briefly detained and questioned last year by J&K Police for criticising a judgement of the J&K high court, said the scheme is seemingly aimed at curbing freedom of speech in Kashmir, “This shows the obsession of the police with social order, where the rights of individuals are considered subservient to the state.”
Of late, the J&K Police has stepped up monitoring of social media platforms that have emerged as a powerful tool of expression and dissent in a region where opinions are under a constant watch of law enforcement agencies.
After the reading down of the J&K’s special status, a number of cases have been filed by the J&K Police, including against journalists in Kashmir, some of whom have been booked under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act while over 1,000 accounts have been suspended by Twitter on the government of India’s request.
Earlier this week, on the Army’s complaint, two news websites were booked by the police for public mischief among other charges following a controversy over Republic Day celebrations at a private school in south Kashmir.
Mander said the army of cyber volunteers will force people from different political ideologies who report on any form of expression of dissent to resort to self-censorship. “Having this force is dangerous in many ways because it legitimises vigilante groups and blurs the official line.”
“And there will be self-censorship among not just ordinary people but also journalists. When you get local people to be informers, they get official status and recognition which makes them ‘powerful’,” he said.
Senior Superintendent of Police Tahir Ashraf, who heads the cyber police in Kashmir, said the volunteers will “work like additional support” in law enforcement. The SSP rejected claims that the scheme will be misused for political reasons.
“They (volunteers) don’t have the power to file FIRs, so the question of misusing the scheme doesn’t arise. Their only job is to report malicious activities in cyberspace,” he said. “We are not giving them authority. We are only enabling private citizens to act as our eyes and ears.”
He however said that the volunteers “can’t use their role in law enforcement for personal or professional” objectives.