Why is the UP Police not taking down child porn? Also, a privacy fail.

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Tl;dr

The UP Police Women Power Line has recently launched the ‘Hamari Suraksha’ Programme. After looking at the few details of the programme available in the public and information gathered from news sources, we wrote to the UP Police highlighting our concerns.

The Hamari Suraksha Programme

On February 14, 2021, we came across a news report titled, "For women's safety, UP police to track porn search on internet", published in the Deccan Herald. The report stated that, "The police have hired a company to monitor the internet searches and keep data of the people who search porn content and analyse it." The report went on to quote the Additional Director General Neera Rawat of UP Police’s Women Powerline wing 1090 who said that, "those searching the porn content on the internet would be 'warned' against doing so initially so that any possible crime could be prevented."

Since viewing sexually explicit material in private spaces is not illegal in India, we were worried about the potential violations of the right to privacy and free speech that may occur as a result of this programme. Subsequently we filed a Right to Information request with the Police Commissioner Office, Lucknow on February 16, 2021.

We also posted a copy of the request filed on Twitter to provide updates to our community about the steps we have taken on the issue. The UP Police Women Power Line responded to our tweet with a photograph which contained clarification regarding the details of the programme.

According to this photograph, under the programme pop-up messages would be shown to people who visit websites which contain child sexual abuse material (CSAM).  The pop-up messages will reportedly contain information to sensitise the people visiting these websites against viewing/accessing CSAM. This will be done through the help of artificial intelligence and psychographics. The Women’s Power Line also claimed that privacy of citizens would not be breached under the programme.

Kya Hamari Suraksha hogi?

The programme, in the form that has been disclosed publicly till now, raises the following concerns which we highlighted in our representation to the UP Police:

  1. The programme lacks an underlying legal framework: The programme has been launched without any legal framework or Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in place which would regulate the functioning of this programme and define its parameters. While currently the programme objective is stated to be sensitising people who view CSAM, the possibility of a function creep, where use of a technology is gradually widened beyond its original scope, is high. Lack of a legal framework also indicates that there are no safeguards or oversight mechanisms which have been put in place to ensure that no misuse of this technology takes place. There is an overall lack of specificity regarding the programme which also makes it difficult to clearly assess its potential positive and negative outcomes.
  2. Privacy concerns around the programme: The programme aims to show pop-up messages to people who visit certain websites. However, there is ambiguity with regard to how this will be carried out effectively while ensuring that privacy of internet users is maintained. One of the major concerns this programme raises is whether these users’ data, such as their IP addresses, will be collected and stored. If yes, then how will it be ensured that this data is protected against unauthorised use or a data breach. Here, it should be noted that in India, viewing sexually explicit material in private spaces is not illegal. If these pop-ups target all sexually explicit material available online then this is a violation of the rights to free speech and privacy accorded to an individual under the Constitution of India.
  3. Use of CSAM as bait: Under the programme, the Police claims to have identified certain websites or web pages which host CSAM, that will show a pop-up message when visited. The question which arises then is, why is the Police not initiating a process for taking down CSAM on these websites and web pages. Under Section 67B of the Information Technology Act, 2000, publishing, transmitting, collecting, seeking, browsing, downloading, advertising, promoting, exchanging or distributing CSAM in any electronic form is a punishable offence. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Rules, 2020, under rule 11, also state that any CSAM has to be reported to either the Special Juvenile Police Unit, the local police, or as the case may be, cyber-crime portal who have to take necessary action on receipt of such report  as per the directions of the Government issued from time to time. Hence, any such website requires criminal investigation and prosecution. Informational pop-ups on the contrary will reduce the proportional law enforcement response that is required to ensure the safety and security of children. This would also be in violation of the order of the Hon’ble Supreme Court In Re: Prajwala (2015) SMW Crl. No. 3/2015 dated March 22, 2017 which held that videos depicting child pornography “should not be made available to the general public”.
  4. Positive outcomes are unlikely: The programme aims to sensitise people against accessing CSAM by raising awareness through pop-up messages. However, it is unlikely that this programme will have any measurable positive outcomes. Pop-up messages are generally used for advertisements and usually people close them without reading. Additionally, even if people do read these messages, it is not necessary that they will be sensitised and will then refrain from viewing CSAM which is still available. If the aim of the programme is to instill a perception of fear in the minds of people who access such material that they could be identified or prosecuted, it would only motivate them to find new ways of accessing CSAM, such as VPNs, and thus would ultimately fail to sensitise them against CSAM.

What to do now?

In light of the concerns above, we made the following recommendations:

  1. A legal review of the programme must be conducted: A review of the ‘Hamari Suraksha’ programme must be implemented wherein it is ensured that the programme is in line with the existing legal provisions related to CSAM in India.
  2. A public SOP must be published: The UP Police should publish and make available publicly a SOP which would regulate the programme before it is implemented. This should contain all technical and legal details of the operation for the, “Hamari Suraksha” programme.
  3. Takedown of online CSAM must be initiated: The UP Police should initiate necessary action, such as take down of such material, against any instance of CSAM about which it gains knowledge as well as initiate criminal investigation and prosecution against appropriate parties.
  4. A privacy impact assessment must be conducted: It should be ensured that any online awareness campaign that is initiated implements measures which are privacy protecting. This can be done by conducting a privacy impact assessment of the campaign before it is implemented.

UP Police and their 360 degree "digital chakravyu" for women's safety

The Hamari Suraksha programme is a part of the digital roadmap that has been unveiled by the UP Police recently, which aims to create a Digital Chakravyuh (360 degree ecosystem for women safety) that will integrate their online and offline actions. Under the programme, the UP Police had also announced its much criticised plan to install AI enabled cameras that would generate alerts on the basis of expressions of "distress" on women's faces, even before they make any move to report!

We appreciate the UP Police's much needed initiative to increase women and child safety in the State as well as their step in identifying how technology may be used beneficially to achieve this purpose. However, we urge caution against any hasty decisions that may end up doing more harm than good.

Important Documents

  1. Representation to UP Police on Humari Suraksha Programme dated March 23, 2021 (link)
  2. Why is porn being blocked in India? dated July 25, 2019 (link)
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