Hyderabad police were seen stopping people on the street in certain neighbourhoods and searching their private messages for words related to drugs.

Hyderabad police commissioner Anjani Kumar walking with his colleagues during an inspection to examine the impact of waterlogging
news Privacy Invasion Saturday, October 30, 2021 - 08:41

A day after news of Hyderabad police stopping people on the streets and checking their WhatsApp chats as part of their raids on drug peddling went viral, a legal notice has been sent to Hyderabad Commissioner of Police Anjani Kumar by  independent privacy researcher Srinivas Kodali, with the assistance of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). The legal notice called for the police to put an immediate end to the unlawful surveillance activity being carried out, including the coercive searching of people’s phones in the streets. It also asked the Commissioner to initiate appropriate proceedings against the police officials under the Hyderabad City Police Act, including disciplinary proceedings and filing of complaints before concerned courts.

A video by The Siasat Daily went viral over the last two days, in which police officials can be seen stopping people on the street and asking them to unlock their phones and hand them over. Police have allegedly been searching for words like ‘ganja’ in people’s chats, as part of their raids and searches to find people peddling or consuming ganja in Hyderabad. South Zone Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP) Gajarao Bhupal told TNM that he was aware of the phone checks, claiming that police were not “forcing anybody” and that people were “cooperating.” 

Read: Hyderabad cops are stopping people on the road, checking WhatsApp chats for 'drugs'

The move drew heavy criticism, with lawyers and activists pointing out that it is illegal, unconstitutional and an infringement of privacy. The legal notice served to the Police Commissioner also pointed out that the phone checks were reported from neighbourhoods around Mangalhat, Dhoolpet, Bhoiguda Kaman, and Jumeraat Bazaar, noting that lower income groups, vulnerable and marginalised populations were being targeted by the police to carry out these actions, where residents may not be in a position to resist them due to “an implied threat of further coercive action.”

The notice cites recent guidelines given by the Karnataka High Court for police to follow while handling smartphones, laptops, computers, and e-mail accounts during search and seizure operations conducted as part of investigations in criminal cases. It notes that the High Court order equates a smartphone to a closed place under Section 100 of the CrPC (The Code Of Criminal Procedure) when it comes to provisions for search and seizure operations. In the absence of a judicial warrant, unless the phone searches were carried out as part of an ongoing criminal case investigation, it called the police action a “blatant abuse of power.”

Apart from ending the practice and initiating action against the police officers involved, the notice also asked the Commissioner to disclose any prior warrants obtained by the police before searching people’s phones, and any departmental instructions issued for such actions. 

 
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