‘Stop unlawful search of mobile phones’: Legal notice to Hyderabad police

Hyderabad: A city-based data and privacy researcher on Friday sent a legal notice to Hyderabad police commissioner to stop “unlawful surveillance activity including search of mobile phones of persons under duress” with regard to the issue of cops checking Whatsapp chats of citizens during checks for drugs or ganja.

The issue of came to light after a video by Siasat showed officials from the Hyderabad police asking for people to show their smartphones during drug-related checks in the west zone area. The viral video drew severe criticism from the public, including lawyers and privacy activists who said that the police cannot go through a person’s phone without the permission (of a court) to do so.

The legal notice to Hyderabad police commissioner Anjani Kumar was sent by Srinivas Kodali, who is a researcher on data, privacy and digital rights of citizens. In the notice, Kodali asked Kumar to “take immediate cognizance of patently illegal actions being committed by officers of the police force” on and about October 27, wherein cops during checks in the Mangalhat-Dhoolpet and Jumeraat Bazaar areas had checked phones of citizens.

“The impugned actions Include 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. Subsequent actions include demands for access to mobile phone devices carried on their person, and thereafter proceeding to search the contents of such mobile devices Including searching private messaging applications,” said Kodali’s notice.

He pointed out that police officers have no powers under the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 or any other statute to stop ordinary citizens and request them to unlock their mobile devices. “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,” it further stated.

Kodali also pointed out that apart from undertaking a “roving and fishing inquiry with no legal basis,” the areas where such activities are being carried out make it clear that “lower income groups and vulnerable and marginalised populations are being targeted” by the police’s action. He claimed that the concerned police officers seem to have knowingly selected areas where the residents would not be in a position to decline the “requests”, which he said “carry an implied threat of further coercive action — to carry such wanton and illegal invasions of privacy”.

The privacy activist also said that reported claims “made by certain officers” that the mobile phones are being searched with consent are “farcical and a pathetic attempt at what appears to be a blatant abuse of power wielded by the police force”. He slammed police officials further for “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,” said the notice.

It also asked the Hyderabad police commissioner to immediately stop the “illegal actions being committed by police officers”, and to initiate appropriate proceedings against them. On Thursday, in response to the issue, Anjani Kumar at a press conference however brushed it aside and attributed it to “Whatsapp University”. However, a cop in the video uploaded by Siasat can be clearly seen explaining what was happening.

Over the past week, the Hyderabad police have gone all out to crack down on drug peddling and have been making several arrests. While one can understand the regular police patrolling to keep a check on crimes, but cops asking people to show their phones and going through their Whatsapp chats is clearly an invasion of one’s privacy. This special drive by cops is mostly linked to Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s missive to the department on curbing drug peddling in the state. In a meeting on October 21, he declared an “all-out war” on drugs.