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Legal notice to Hyderabad Police seeks action against cops searching citizens’ phones

The Hyderabad Police has a history of introducing privacy-invasive measures that appear to not have any legal backing.

Hyderabad City Police was sent a legal notice seeking information and an immediate end to surveillance activities which includes going through phones and chat details of passers-by to allegedly look for Ganja-related conversations.

In the legal notice sent by independent privacy and security researcher Srinivas Kodali, with assistance from the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), Kodali argued that the phone-checking drive was not backed by a judicial warrant and hence, not permissible under the law. He requested Hyderabad City Police Commissioner Anjani Kumar to stop the search activities and take action against the police officials who were taking up such operations under Hyderabad Police Act 1348 Fajli; else he said that he “would seek further legal remedy including but not limited to approaching appropriate judicial fora”.

It is clear and apparent that the questioned activity is not backed by judicial warrants, nor is it part of any ongoing investigation requiring such mass-scale invasion of citizens’ privacy. The citizens on whose mobile phones some allegedly objectionable content is being found are being sent to police stations. This suggests that the police officers are engaging in a roving and fishing inquiry with no legal basis — Kodali in his legal notice to Hyderabad Police

First reported by Hyderabad-based Urdu daily Siasat, the Hyderabad Police has been setting up these checkpoints at various parts of the city including Jummerat Bazaar, Bhoiguda Kaman, Dhoolpet, Mangalhat, and so on. As per the video, the cops, working in three different shifts, appear to be stopping people whom they consider to be ‘suspicious’, checking their motorcycle or scooter, and asking for their phones.

The Hyderabad City Police has had a history of introducing tech-related invasive measures that seemingly do not have any legal backing. This is not even the first time that the city police have received such legal notice. A few months back, Hyderabad-based social activist SQ Masood sent a legal notice to Kumar asking the police to stop using artificial intelligence-based tools like facial recognition systems for enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns.

What does the legal notice say?

Kodali listed these salient legal points while arguing against the police’s phone searching activities:

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Criminal Procedure Code 1973: Kodali said that the police officers have no powers under Criminal Procedure Code 1973, or any other statute to stop citizens and “request” that they unlock their mobile phones and proceed to search the contents of such devices to find evidence of any alleged illegal activity.

Virendra Khanna v State of Karnataka & Anr: Kodali pointed out that the Karnataka HC in the Virendra Khanna v. State of Karnataka & Anr held that a mobile phone is akin to a “place” as under Section 100 Cr.P.C. “It was further held that searches of mobile phones require a judicial warrant, unless the search is undertaken during an investigation and there exist recorded reasons explaining the need for urgent and immediate police intervention,” the notice read.

Lower income groups and vulnerable population being targeted: Kodali said the areas in which such activities are being carried indicate that the police were allegedly targeting “lower income groups, vulnerable and marginalised populations”.

The concerned police officers seem to have knowingly selected areas where the residents would not be in a position to decline the “requests” – which carry an implied threat of further coercive action – to carry such wanton and illegal invasions of privacy — Kodali in the legal notice

Claims by police that consent was taken for search is ‘farcical’: Earlier, on being asked about this search operation, Gajarao Bhupal, Deputy Commissioner of Police in Hyderabad’s South Zone had told The NewsMinute that he was aware of such practices and that the police were not forcing anybody to hand over their phones. Kodali in his legal notice submitted that such claims were “farcical and a pathetic attempt at what appears to be a blatant abuse of power wielded by the police force — a power which prompts respect and fear for the police authority in the minds of ordinary citizens”.

Blatant violation of Fundamental Right to Life and Personal Liberty:

While it is obvious that the right to privacy is not absolute, persons without any formal accusation / reasonable suspicion against them are entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy in respect of their mobile phone and the contents thereof. The questioned activity erodes this expectation without cause and is an obvious weapon of abuse as police officers can wade into the intimate details of any person’s private life. There cannot be a more direct and patent violation of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty that your good office has a sworn oath to protect — Kodali in the legal notice

Hyderabad commissioner defended move, indicated video is ‘fake’

Taking cognisance of the outrage prompted by the viral video, city police commissioner Anjani Kumar defended the move of the police.

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“In few cases of grave and sensational crime when the accused is likely to run away, police checks all the items at the scene of the crime or available with one of the offender who is caught. At that time we do not know who the gang members are, who the accomplices are. Whatever item is found it is examined immediately,” Kumar said. He said that items can be —

  • Laptop
  • Hard disk
  • Pendrive
  • Camera

Kumar tried to indicate that video was fake: Without directly talking about the Siasat video, Kumar blamed WhatsApp for the spread of “morphed” videos. “When a video is morphed, under what context the cut and paste is done — all these things are hard to impossible to verify immediately. In a city as big as Hyderabad, there are usually 50,000 such video uploads (every day). It is practically impossible for the police to verify each and everyone of them,” the commissioner said.

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Among other subjects, I cover the increasing usage of emerging technologies, especially for surveillance in India

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