Govt looks for cyber volunteers to report ‘anti-national activities’

Sources told The Indian Express that the programme will be piloted on a trial basis in Jammu and Kashmir, and Tripura, and that its scale would be calibrated depending on feedback.

IN A controversial move, the cybercrime cell of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has started a new programme under which citizens can participate as volunteers to identify, flag and report to the Government illegal and unlawful content, including child pornography, rape, terrorism, radicalisation and anti-national activities.

Sources told The Indian Express that the programme will be piloted on a trial basis in Jammu and Kashmir, and Tripura, and that its scale would be calibrated depending on feedback.

Question of powers, limits

THE plan may end up granting extraordinary powers to volunteers to flag any content or person as promoting radicalisation or being “anti-national” without any onus or accountability. The Government must first constitute a clear legal framework.

Under this programme, the MHA’s Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) will act as a nodal point while volunteers can register themselves with their states or union territories to act as cyber volunteers.

The volunteers will be required to furnish personal details, including name, father’s name, mobile number and email address, although these will not be verified separately, according to a document seeking registration from volunteers.

The Government does not yet have any clear legal framework on what constitutes anti-national content or activity, and often uses provisions under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to either detain or jail those accused of “anti-national” activities.

The Home Ministry did not respond to an email from The Indian Express seeking details on the reason for starting such a programme, how it would define anti-national content or activity, and what action would be taken against a social media account flagged as “anti-national”

The MHA’s portal, where one can register as a cybercrime volunteer, specifies that those who register cannot use this programme for any commercial gain or issue any public statement about their association. Volunteers are also “prohibited from using the name or claiming association” with MHA on any public platform.

But cybersecurity lawyers and activists say the norms still leave a wide range of issues to be dealt with.

“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?” a senior lawyer, who deals in cybercrime cases, told The Indian Express.

Apart from this, MHA directive on the registration portal says that the volunteer shall “maintain strict confidentiality of task assigned/carried out by him /her”. “The State Nodal Officer of States/UTs also reserves the right to take legal action…against the Volunteer, in case of violation of terms and conditions of Cyber Volunteer Program,” the cybercrime division says in the notice seeking registration.

Citizens can register as cyber awareness promoters, too, to spread information about cybercrime in “vulnerable” groups such as women, children, elderly and those residing in rural areas. The cybercrime division is also seeking applications on a voluntary basis from cyber experts, who can help the government with malware and memory analysis as well as cryptography.

Volunteers seeking to register themselves as a promoter or expert will, however, be verified by their states or union territories, and subject to the same legal provisions as volunteers, the notification says.

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