Cybercrimes in India

(Based on my talk delivered on July 29, 2015 as a part of the foundation program of IIT Gandhinagar)

As the name suggests, acts of crimes perpetrated on the cyberspace – as opposed to the physical space — are known as cybercrimes.  These crimes essentially make use of one or more electronic devices connected to the computer networks.  Cybercrimes differ from the traditional or physical crimes in that, in the former the perpetrator need not come close to the victim physically to harm her, and that the execution of the crime is done entirely by means of interactions between electronic devices, where the criminal may be located thousands of miles away from the crime scene.

Up until 2000, India did not have any special legislation to deal with cybercrimes exclusively; they used to be addressed within the purview of the old Indian Penal Code (IPC), which first came into force in 1860, and went through a number of amendments since then.  Soon it became clear that the IPC alone was not sufficient to cover many serious crimes that could only be committed in the cyberspace.

To bridge the gap, the Information Technology Act (IT Act) came into force on October 17, 2000; after that it underwent a major amendment in 2008, and was renamed IT Amendment Act 2008. Since then a number of high-profile and often controversial cases have been registered under various sections of this new act, making the law quite well-known even among the common people.

One of the major controversies surrounding the IT Amendment Act 2008 was concerning its section 66(A) that seemed to directly contradict the freedom of expression rights granted to every Indian by the article 19 of the constitution. There were recurring complaints by the civil rights groups against this section for it allegedly giving to the law-enforcement agencies enough leeway to crack down on people for minor or no offences. Indeed, on a number of occasions, it appeared that the police had violated any reasonable norm of a democratic society by abusing section 66(A). One such example was when a teenage student from the state of UP got arrested for posting a message on a social networking site purportedly offending a powerful political leader from the same state. Another case, which was in the headlines for a long time, and still refuses to die, was about a chemistry professor of a renowned university in the city of Kolkata being picked up by the police in an early dawn raid on his house, and beaten up in custody, seemingly because he had posted a satirical cartoon involving the chief minister of the state of West Bengal. One more remarkable incident coming to mind is the arrest of two Mumbai girls for writing and “liking” what, according to many, looked like an innocuous post questioning the logic behind certain government (in)action. In all the above cases, the law invoked for the crackdowns was the same, the notorious section 66(A).

Whether anti-democratic or not, this controversial section has finally been scrapped following a ruling by the supreme court of India, but not before it had adequately extracted its pound of flesh.

Even after the repeal of the all draconian section 66(A), the IT Amendment Act 2008 still retains clauses that can be “illegally” used to compromise several basic human rights of an individual. For example, going by any reasonable interpretation of section 69, a person is considered to commit a crime, if he refuses to hand over his private data, with proper decryption if applicable, to the appropriate government agencies, whenever asked by them to do so. The aspect that the civil rights activists take issue with is the unrestricted nature of the law, which they claim raises the possibility of enforcing it even when there should be no compelling reasons for that; a resulting possible danger could be that  the law be abused to invade someone’s privacy at will with impunity.

Barring a few controversial sections such as the above, the IT Amendment Act 2008, by and large, has the potential to protect people against a number of grave human rights violations and cybercrimes.  The news is still fresh in our memory where an IIT Kanpur graduate was arrested for cyberstalking and harassing a woman who was his junior at the same institute few years ago.

Computer networks and all kinds of electronic devices are nowadays integral parts of our personal and professional lives. Like any technology with a powerful impact on the society, computer networks too need to be used with a fair amount of caution. Given the pervasive presence of the Internet and its easy availability, it is not unnatural – especially for those who are new in the business – to forget about that needed caution. As a result, legal actions against what can be construed as small computer-related adventures often come as massive shocks. It is a sad reality that a few things that could easily be accepted as teenage pranks – such as sending emails using someone else’s identity, or accessing an online account with stolen passwords, or, for that matter, clicking pictures of someone’s private actions, and distributing them across the Internet – are actually criminal transgressions from the legal standpoints, capable of attracting harsh punishments.

The number of Internet related crimes is increasing at a very fast rate in this country; keeping pace, also increasing is the number of crackdowns on cybercrimes. It is wiser to be informed about these issues right at the start, than falling victim to them unknowingly. It would also be instructive to be aware of the quantum of punishment associated with a particular cybercrime, that often goes against the common perception. For example, a person harassing or annoying another person using a fake public profile on the Internet could be charged under section 67 of the IT Amendment Act for which the punishment could be up to three years of imprisonment and a large sum of monetary fine (a few lakhs of rupees).

This website discusses the Indian cyberlaws in a fairly detailed fashion.

Legislation is a dynamic process; old laws give way to new ones taking into consideration the  socio-cultural changes happening in the society, involving politics, traditions, human habits, religious practices, environmental conditions, economic upheavals, and many such things. Also, new laws get repealed soon or replaced by newer ones. It is therefore important that we be able to form our own opinions on various aspects of our legal frameworks, and participate in debates on issues related to that. This way, the evil influences of technological progresses in the society may possibly be mitigated.

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