The Mumbai police has set up a center to monitor social media activities of people, once again sparking fears that the police and the government may intrude on the privacy of citizen, inhibit free speech on the Internet and take arbitrary action on unsuspecting people for seemingly innocent comments on social networking sites.
The Social Media Lab, inaugurated on Saturday by Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan will gauge the mood of people on social media, said the Mumbai police. They will also follow active netizens. In other words, police will keep a close watch on Internet activists.
According to social media experts, with the amount of data covered by tweets and posts it will be near to impossible to monitor each and every comment. Instead the department can single out netizens with criminal records, anti-social and anti-national agendas and track their online activities.
This could greatly hamper online assembly and free speech.
Indian law enforcement agencies are also allegedly involved in covert operations to spy on its citizen. In a recent report, a Canada based research lab said that a piece of spying software usually used by law enforcement agencies, capable of collecting information such as passwords and Skype calls and sending it to a command and control server remotely, has been found active in India, among 25 countries.
The police being active on social media has its positives as well. Recently the Bangalore Police Cyber Cell were able to track down a pair of troublemakers whose pictures were posted on Facebook by a victim. Two boys allegedly eve teased a group of friends travelling on a car and sped away on the bike. The driver was able to take a quick picture with his mobile and post it on Facebook. The Bangalore Police, who were tagged in the post, arrested the biker duo.
During the days following the gruesome Delhi gang rape incident, the Delhi Police department had monitored social media sites in order to get a feel of the public opinion and sentiments.
However, people are still afraid that the police may end up doing a bit of moral policing and censorship in the name of public interest. Earlier, two girls from Mumbai who had posted on Facebook against the Mumbai Bandh, that happened following the death of Shiv Sena Chief Bal Thackeray, were arrested under section 66-A of the IT act. The police made this arrest citing public interest and security of the girls as the reason and later released them.
Justice Katju, Press Council of India Chairman, wrote to the Maharashtra Chief Minister asking him to initiate criminal proceedings against the police personnel involved in the arrest of the two girls.
Similar incidents have also occurred in the past in other states. In October, a small scale industrialist was arrested by the police, under section 66-A of the IT act, for posting a comment against Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s son Karti Chidambaram.
Another similar incident occurred in Mumbai last year, when police conducted midnight raids at the house of two cabin crews from Air India for comments made by them on Facebook. The two were kept in jail for 12 days in jail for interrogation and they lost their jobs.
Following such indiscriminate use of ‘Section 66-A of the IT Act’ by the police, the central government has issued guidelines to all law enforcement personnel that an approval from a high ranking police officer must be sought before registering complaints under controversial section 66 (A) of the Information Technology act.
With a history of law enforcement agencies misusing the IT Act and acting as a moral police o the web, it remains to see how much of the netizens fears will come true.