The cybercrime cell of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has reportedly started a contentious programme, under which citizens can sign up as cyber volunteers to identify, flag, and report illegal, unlawful and ‘anti-national’ content online, The Indian Express reported.
According to the report by The Indian Express, sources informed that the effort will be undertaken on a trial basis in Jammu, Kashmir and Tripura before being implemented in the rest of the country, depending on feedback.
In a press statement on Wednesday, 3 February, the J&K Police asked netizens to, “Register as volunteer through a dedicated section ‘Cyber Volunteers’ on National Cybercrime Reporting Portal,” The Wire reported.
The Indian Express also reported that those volunteering to report ‘anti-national’ content will be required to provide personal details, although these will not be verified separately.
The MHA’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) will be the nodal point in the surveillance programme, and volunteers will register themselves with their states/union territories.
Why Cyber-Surveillance of ‘Anti-National’ Activities is Problematic
Lawyers and activists have noted that there is no legal clarity on what constitutes an ‘anti-national content or activity’, and the Centre has a history of using provisions under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to either detain those accused of such acts.
A senior lawyer dealing with cybercrime cases told The Indian Express, “There are multiple aspects to this notification. Firstly, there are no legal definitions of anti-national content or activity, either by the government or the judiciary. That is one big grey area. Secondly, giving people the option to report fellow citizens gives too much power without adequate checks and balances. What if I report you and get it reported by multiple people to settle my differences with you?”
Author and human rights activist Harsh Mander expressed his disapproval of the government-sanctioned initiative, calling it ‘dangerous’ and pointing out that if local people are encouraged to be informers, it blurs the line between officials and vigilante groups.
What Does the Registration Portal Say?
In a notice seeking volunteer registration, the cybercrime division said that the volunteer shall ‘maintain strict confidentiality of task assigned/carried out by him/her’, The Indian Express quoted.
It also informed that in case of violation of terms and conditions of Cyber Volunteer Programme, the appropriate authority reserves the right to take legal action against the volunteer.
The portal also specifies that the programme cannot be used for personal profit or employed to issue public statements about their association. Volunteers are also ‘prohibited from using the name or claiming association’ with MHA on any public platform, The Indian Express reported.
Under this initiative, people can either register as unlawful content flagger; cyber awareness promoters, those who will spread information about cybercrime to women, children, elderly and people from rural areas; or cyber experts, who can help the government with malware and memory analysis as well as cryptography, The Indian Express reported.
While there will be no verification process for volunteers who sign up as ‘Unlawful Content Flagger’, those who join as ‘Cyber Awareness Promoter’ or ‘Cyber Expert’ will be verified.
(With inputs from The Indian Express and The Wire)