IFF assisted in sending a legal notice to the Hyderabad Police Commissioner regarding search of mobile phones for keywords such as ‘ganja’

tl;dr

We assisted Mr. Srinivas Kodali, an independent privacy researcher, in drafting and sending a legal notice to the Hyderabad Police Commissioner, when we learned that Hyderabad Police is stopping random passers-by on the roads, and going through their phones. News videos clearly showed police personnel asking people to unlock their phones and hand it over to police officials. The police officials then admittedly searched the phones for keywords such as ‘ganja’, ‘weed’ and ‘stuff’. This is a clear and blatant abuse of police power, and is entirely illegal.

Background

A video news report published by Siasat Daily showed clear video images of patently illegal actions being committed by officers of the police force on and about October 27, 2021 in and around Mangalhat, Dhoolpet, Bhoigudakaman, and Jumeraat Bazaar. The video showed that the police were stopping pedestrians, motorcycle and auto rickshaw drivers and riders and bystanders without any reasonable suspicion of having committed/being involved in the commission of an offence. The police then demanded access to mobile phone devices, and thereafter proceeded to search the contents of such mobile devices including searching private messaging applications.

The police officials admitted to making people unlock their phones

A police officer was also interviewed by Siasat Daily team, where the police officer stated that he is stopping random passers-by and checking their mobile phones, and in cases where any messages with keywords “ganja”, “weed” and “stuff” are found, the persons are being sent to the police station. In the video, the police officials are seen stopping passersby indiscriminately without any basis and without communicating any reasons for inspection of their phones. He stated that five teams were carrying out such inspections in three shifts of 6 AM to 2 PM, 2 PM to 6 PM, and 6 PM to 2 AM, and that this exercise has been taking place for approximately one month and may go on for another month.

It was reported by The News Minute that every police station has been instructed to ask for the mobile phones of citizens, get them unlocked, and search the device (presumably email / messaging apps) for keywords such as “ganja” to look for any related chats. It was further reported that Mr. Gajarao Bhupal, Deputy Commissioner of Police, South Zone, has confirmed that he is aware of such practices. He claimed that the police are not forcing anybody to hand over their phones, and that people are co-operating without complaining.

Mr. Bhupal further stated that, in his opinion, this was not illegal. However, he added that upon refusal to hand-over phones, the police would consider imposing legal provisions against such persons.

This is despite the fact that at a video press conference, the Hyderabad Police Commissioner was seen stating that it is only in a few cases of grave and sensational crimes, where the accused is likely to run, that the police may check items found at the scene of the crime or available with the accused persons, including digital evidence such as mobile phones and laptops.  

This is not permissible under law

But, police officers have no powers under the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 or any other statute to stop ordinary citizens and “request” that they unlock their mobile devices, and, thereafter, proceed to search the contents of such devices to find evidence of any illegal activity. The Hon’ble Karnataka High Court has recently, in W.P. No. 11759/2020 titled Virendra Khanna v. State of Karnataka & Anr (order dt. 12.03.2021), 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.

It is clear and apparent that the Hyderabad Police’s 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, meaning that the police officers are engaging in a roving and fishing inquiry with no legal basis.

In fact, the areas where such activities are being carried out make it clear that lower income groups and vulnerable populations are being targeted by this police action. The concerned police officers seem to have knowingly selected areas where the residents would not be in a position to decline the “requests” to carry such wanton and illegal invasions of privacy.

This is 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. Rather than utilising that power to benefit society, it is apparent that the police officers are acting on fear and abusing their wide powers and coercive presence to treat all and any persons as suspects without any reasonable basis.

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.

Srinivas Kodali, a researcher on data and privacy, who graduated from Indian Institute of Technology Madras with a Bachelor of Technology in Civil Engineering, sent a legal notice to the Police Commissioner of Hyderabad seeking cessation of the illegal action. Srinivas has been associated with various internet communities and movements in India, where he advocates for data standards, open data and cyber security in India, and was deeply perturbed about the videos that he saw.

He highlighted the issues and contentions explained above and called upon the Hyderabad Police Commissioner to immediately ensure the cessation of the illegal actions being committed by police officers d, and take cognisance of such actions and initiate appropriate proceedings against them under the Hyderabad City Police Act, 1348-F, including disciplinary proceedings and filing of complaints before concerned courts.

We thank Mr. Kodali for raising this important issue and will keep you update on the Hyderabad Police Commissioner’s response.

Important documents

  1. Copy of the legal notice (link)
  2. Previous post dated June 2, 2021 titled “Hyderabad Police force people to remove their masks before photographing them. We sent a legal notice. #SaveOurPrivacy” (link)