Panic Online: Where is the Line Between Security & Freedom?

Trade-off between liberty and a person’s security is the challenge for India’s security apparatus.

7 min read
Hindi Female

On 28 December 2014, an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion occurred on Church Street, a popular hangout destination in the city of Bengaluru. Within minutes, Twitter was abuzz with messages to this effect:

1st tweet by @abc: Blast on Church Street in Bengaluru.

2nd tweet by @lmn: Blast near church in Bengaluru.

3rd tweet by @xyz: Blast in a church in Bengaluru.

This rapid spread of misinformation could have potentially escalated into on-street mobilisation and counter-mobilisation, but was prevented by credible online presence of the Bengaluru City Police, which quickly dismissed this malicious information through its Twitter and Facebook social media teams. While acknowledging that such misinformation might have been a case of online ‘Chinese whispers’, repeated occurrences of such online campaigns suggest otherwise.

This case clearly highlights that technology, specifically the Internet and mobile devices, is seen as an important instrument to enable protests, activism and mobilisation, especially because they are less sensitive to control mechanisms traditionally employed by governments of the world. This is precisely the challenge encountered by a hierarchical State in an age of networked societies.


While the State tries to respond to this genre of online propaganda, the question to be asked, and answered is — how can the State ensure public security while upholding individual freedoms in networked societies?

With more than 335 million users of the Internet, the Indian State has been at the receiving end of challenges posed by RNSs. Such societies have mobilised not only against the State but also targeted other groups systematically. A few examples below demonstrate how Internet-driven mobilisations work in India.

Trade-off between liberty and a person’s security is the challenge for India’s security apparatus.
Hardik Patel, convener of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti, during an agitation in Gujarat. (Photo: PTI)

Patidar Reservation Agitation, Gujarat

Starting in July 2015, members of the Patidar community in Gujarat held public demonstrations, demanding Other Backward Classes (OBC) status for reservation in education and government jobs.

People were mobilised using social media – Patidar Apps, Facebook and WhatsApp. Very soon, there were about 56 WhatsApp groups and 15 Facebook pages. Two applications for Android were created for support, event participation and regular updates of the movement – Patidar and Patidar Anamat. These were interactive apps, which allowed users to upload pictures and share thoughts.

The mobilisation took place in many cities across Gujarat and soon turned violent. Eleven people died in clashes with the police. Citing the role of the Internet in mobilising people, Internet service on mobile phones and certain websites like WhatsApp and Facebook on broadband were blocked for six days from 26 August to 31 August across the state.

Also Read: Marathas, Patidars & Jats Are the Original Political Entrepreneurs


Protests in Sealdah, Kolkata

In August 2015, some social media users portrayed a road blockade as a full-blown riot. A number of handles started to tweet about a major communal riot that Kolkata was apparently experiencing right at that very moment. The mobilisation happened as follows.

The Railway Police detained 62 madrasa students in Sealdah station and sent them to a child welfare home in Barasat on the outskirts of the city. The children were from Bihar and on their way to a seminary in Maharashtra. The police held them for allegedly travelling without proper identity documents.

Hundreds of Muslims from the Rajabazar area, close to Sealdah station, had mobilised in protest against this police move. By afternoon, a blockade was put in place, shutting off one of the city’s major streets, Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road, on a five-kilometre stretch between Rajabazar and Park Circus.

This threw the city’s transportation out of gear, leading to major traffic congestion. A heavy contingent of police was deployed in the affected areas and Acharya Prafulla Chandra Road was cordoned off to traffic. By midnight, just as Twitter was buzzing with rumours of a riot, in fact, the crowd had started to disperse, as the authorities had agreed to release the detained children.

What could have turned out to be a riot was prevented by rapid police deployment and the initiation of corrective measures.


Flight of People of Northeast India, Bangalore

Back in 2012, India perhaps witnessed the first example of Internet-driven migration in operation. Following instances of violence between tribal and Muslim communities in Assam, online rumour mongering over SMSes and mobile videos caused nearly 15,000 Northeastern Indians to flee Bangalore, even though no incident was actually reported in Bangalore itself.

The Bengaluru City Police responded by banning bulk SMSes for a fortnight. Despite frantic appeals by the Karnataka state government, the exodus could not be controlled immediately.


Muzaffarnagar Riots, Uttar Pradesh

In 2013, a WhatsApp video of two boys being beaten fanned the Muzaffarnagar riots. By the time it was determined that the video was at least two years old, filmed perhaps in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it was too late – the worst case of violence in the recent history of Uttar Pradesh could not be prevented.

Trade-off between liberty and a person’s security is the challenge for India’s security apparatus.
Shaista (L), Mohd Akhlaq’s daughter and Asgari (R), his mother, soon after he was killed in his home by a mob, accusing him of cow slaughter. (Photo: The Quint)

Dadri Mob Lynching, Uttar Pradesh

In September 2015, a mob killed a 52-year-old man Mohammad Akhlaq and seriously injured his son Danish. Social media played a role in spreading the rumour that Akhlaq had slaughtered a cow and stored its meat in his fridge. Pictures of the meat and body parts of an animal were shared many times on various social media websites.

The Uttar Pradesh Police in the last two months before the lynching had diffused nearly five incidents of communal tension in various villages of Dadri. Authorities here had received intelligence inputs from multiple sources about village youth, who as the police believe, were having ‘conversations’ that might have disturbed the peace in the area.

From these examples, one can conclude that mobilisations triggered by RNSs are a challenge to the state in two ways. First, they make upholding the rule of law difficult. This is because the Indian state is yet to strike the right approach to balance between liberty and security in the online space.

The governments are also limited by their capabilities to track misinformation being spread over encrypted networks. RNSs find it easy to mobilise large numbers of people. It takes a single text message, video, missed call, or tweet to share information about the time and place of protests. It is possible to create massive rallies like those at Egypt's Tahrir Square and Bangladesh's 29 Shahbag with the same technology and resources used to create flash mobs.

Second, States find it difficult to maintain their monopoly over violence due to the speed of mobilisations in networked societies. Because these mobilisations take place in a networked fashion, they are many times faster than attempts at counter-mobilisation by hierarchically structured authorities.

Information flows differently in networks, spreading from node-to-node, through various channels. Each entity in a network can receive, modify, and transmit information, limited only by what technology permits. Compared to their hierarchical forebears, RNSs have faster information flows and shorter attention spans. Given this new challenge, what is the liberty-security trade off in the new setting?


Summary of Views on Liberty Versus Security from Leading Experts

Sunil Abraham et al from the Centre for Internet and Society see the tension between security and privacy as an optimisation problem rather than a tradeoff. They say,

Often policymakers talk about a balance between the privacy and security imperatives—in other words a zero-sum game. Balancing these imperatives is a foolhardy approach, as it simultaneously undermines both imperatives. Balancing privacy and security should instead be framed as an optimisation problem. Indeed, during a time when oversight mechanisms have failed even in so-called democratic states, the regulatory power of technology should be seen as an increasingly key ingredient to the solution of that optimisation problem.

An optimisation approach to resolving the false dichotomy between privacy and security will not allow for a total surveillance regime as pursued by the US administration.

If total surveillance will completely undermine the national security imperative, what then should be the optimal level of surveillance in a population? The answer depends upon the existing security situation.

If this is represented on a graph with security on the y-axis and the proportion of the population under surveillance on the x-axis, the benefits of surveillance could be represented by an inverted hockeystick curve.

To begin with, there would already be some degree of security. As a small subset of the population is brought under surveillance, security would increase till an optimum level is reached, after which, enhancing the number of people under surveillance would not result in any security pay-off.

Instead, unnecessary surveillance would diminish security as it would introduce all sorts of new vulnerabilities. Depending on the existing security situation, the head of the hockey-stick curve might be bigger or smaller. To use a gastronomic analogy, optimal surveillance is like salt in cooking— necessary in small quantities but counter-productive even if slightly in excess.

In India, the designers of surveillance projects have fortunately rejected the total surveillance paradigm. For example, the objective of the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) is to streamline and automate targeted surveillance; it is introducing technological safeguards that will allow express combinations of result-sets from 22 databases to be made available to 12 authorised agencies.

Gautam John, lawyer and technology entrepreneur has this to say regarding regulations,

Existing laws are more than sufficient to deal with these [security] matters both online and otherwise. The segmentation of online speech only on the basis of medium is unreasonable. Punishment for any real threat to public order or defamation is sufficiently covered under Article 19(2) as grounds to limit freedom.

Raghu Raman, former head of NATGRID has a counter-point on thinking about security:

Asymmetric threats require a fundamental change in the way we think about our current socio-political scenario. Democracy pivots on civil liberties. But civil liberties are meaningless without civil security. Changing threat scenarios require society to re-think priorities between contradictory requirements.

(The article is an excerpt from SV Raju's Festschrift 'Liberalism in India: Past, Present and Future' with permission from the Centre for Civil Society. Nitin Pai is the founder and Pranay Kotasthane is Research Fellow, Takshashila Institution and can be reached @acorn and @pranaykotas respectively. The views expressed above are the authors own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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