Alert! Army checking civilians’ smartphones in a bid to flush out terrorism from valley, residents object

By Qadri Inzamam

Srinagar:  Security forces in Kashmir, particularly in its volatile south, are allegedly prying into cellphones of residents during roadside searches, raising privacy issues in a state where militants use social media to propagate their agenda and garner mass support.

Even as officials denied it was routine policing practice, dozens of incidents have been reported in recent weeks in which security forces have checked photos, videos and WhatsApp messages of civilians on their smartphones.

And if anything “incriminating” related to militancy is found in the gallery of smartphones, a beating might follow, as happened with Mohammad Nadeem of Kulgam, who was on his way to Srinagar on his motorbike on July 2 when he was stopped by security forces near Awantipora.

Nadeem said the security personnel went through the photo and video gallery of his phone and checked his WhatsApp messages.

“Suddenly, one of the security personnel noticed a photograph of a militant-funeral. Infuriated, he asked me to stand by the roadside and take off my shirt,” Nadeem, 30, told IANS.

He said he had participated in the Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Bashir Lashkari’s funeral a day before where he had clicked few photographs that showed the slain militant’s body and a few Pakistani flags in the backdrop.

“They hit me with sticks and gun-butts, and kicked me,” Nadeem alleged.

Duggal argued the fundamental right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution includes right to dignified human life, and no dignified human life can be lived without having the privacy of mobile phones and private messages stored therein.

“This particular privacy cannot be deprived unless (and) until there is a special law which has authorised the checking of mobile phones and private messages. In the absence of such a law, the practice of checking the phones and private messages would amount to breaching the privacy of citizens,” Duggal told IANS.

According to Duggal, the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000, are completely silent about physical checking of mobile phones, photo/video galleries and WhatsApp of civilians.

“The only direction where the law prescribes the provisions is giving powers to the government for direct interception, monitoring, decryption and blocking. These have to be done at the network level,” Duggal noted.

Chairman of Jammu and Kashmir’s Coalition of Civil Societies (JKCCS) Khurram Parvez argued that in Kashmir any debate on privacy of citizens was out of context.

“We know that the government, through its multiple agencies, is already monitoring phone calls and Internet; (checking phones) only deepens the crisis, because now even individual officers at the grassroots have access to private details of people, which will further increase the vulnerability of the citizens,” Parvez told IANS.

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