The Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) controversial “cyber crime volunteers” programme targets to rope in around 500 persons to flag unlawful content on the Internet for “improvement in the cyber-crime ecosystem of India”.
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The programme will include 200 “cyber awareness promoters” and 50 “cyber experts”, according to the output outcome monitoring framework of the MHA’s budget 2021-22.
The output outcome framework developed by the NITI Aayog was adopted in the 2019-20 budget to define and evaluate government schemes below ₹500 crore in terms of outcomes.
The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a digital liberties organisation, has written to the MHA that the scheme will lead to a “culture of surveillance and constant suspicion in society creating potential social distrust”.
The IFF said in a representation to the MHA that there is no information available on how the Ministry will ensure that programme is not misused by certain elements to extract misguided personal or political vendettas. It should also be noted that there is no process in place for withdrawal of complaints once submitted, it said.
The MHA’s framework says under the “Cyber-crime Ecosystem Management Unit” it aims to hold regular consultation with “government bodies, academia, NGOs, private bodies, technical companies etc.”
According to the output outcome monitoring framework of 2021-22, the “number of cyber volunteer unlawful content flaggers applying” to achieve the “improvement in the cybercrime ecosystem of India” is stated to be 500.
The National Cybercrime Ecosystem Management Unit is part of the Indian Cybercrime Coordination Centre (I4C) scheme launched by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in January 2020.
The project was approved in October 2018 at an estimated cost of ₹415.86 crore.
The I4C scheme that includes other components also has been allocated ₹69.80 crore in the budget.
Under the National Cyber Research and Innovation scheme, ₹9 crore will be provided to institutions to solve the problems of law enforcement agencies, the budget document said.
As reported by The Hindu on November 1 last year, the MHA through its grievance portal, cybercrime.gov.in, aims to raise the “cyber crime volunteers” group.
It asks “good samaritans” to register as volunteers to help “law enforcement agencies in identifying, reporting and removing illegal/unlawful online content”.
The content has been categorised as the following — against sovereignty and integrity, against defence of India, against security of the State, against friendly relations with foreign States, content aimed at disturbing public order, disturbing communal harmony and child sex abuse material. The volunteers will have to submit photograph, name and address proof to be enlisted as a volunteer.
The description on portal says “individuals who are willing to volunteer in any other area that can help in fighting cybercrime” are also welcome. “The applications shall be received directly by the State Nodal and they shall contact the applicants on an as-needed basis,” the portal says.
The terms and conditions for enrolment say the volunteer is strictly prohibited from creating social media account in the name of this programme or issue any statement or express opinions on public platforms on behalf of this programme. It says volunteers shall maintain strict confidentiality of task assigned or carried out by him/her. It said volunteer shall be de-registered in case of violation or breach of any of the conditions and the State nodal officers reserve the right to take legal action.
The IFF said the programme will essentially result in a similar situation to the one which East Germany was in the 1950s. “Asking citizens to report their fellow citizens would lead cyber-vigilantism, as stated above, and would lead to peers turning against their peers to snitch on them.” It said since the MHA has failed to clearly define unlawful content and content which would relate to “anti-national” activities, this could allow the volunteers to exercise far more discretion than is necessary and report on citizens who are well within their rights to post content which is critical of the State.