On 23 June, parents of young Vinupriya, a third year BSc student living in Salem, Tamil Nadu, walked into the office of the Superintendent of Police of Salem district. They wanted action to be taken – with a rider – a complaint must not be filed. This case should be off the books.
The police complied – Vinupriya’s father was anguished that morphed images of his 21-year-old daughter, showing her in a scantily clad outfit, had been uploaded onto Facebook. A complaint was registered that evening in the Community Service Register (CSR) instead and the police began to investigate the case.
“There were three actionable points in the case,” said an officer involved in the case who did not wish to be named. “The account which was used to put up the morphed picture was a fake profile. That is an offence under Section 65C of the IT Act. Sections 67 and 67A too applied since it could be deemed to be pornographic content,” he explained.
In the wee hours of 24 June, they picked up one young man for questioning. This youngster was said to have been in a relationship with Vinupriya earlier. The police let him off as they realised he was not the culprit.
Another angle of investigation was a mobile number from which Vinupriya’s father had received a number of calls. This number too was a dead end – it turned out to be in the name of a tea seller in Coimbatore – a fake ID was used to buy the SIM card. On 24 June itself, an email was sent from the Salem Cyber Cell police to Facebook, asking for IP details of the concerned account as also to block the offending account.
Faced with dead ends all round, Salem police were hoping to get word from Facebook so that their investigations could lead them to the actual offender. A senior officer put in a word to the CB-CID (Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department, a special unit of state police) Cyber Crime Cell, asking them to lean on Facebook India officials to send IP details speedily. “That was just a shot in the dark,” said the officer. “The CB-CID had organised a workshop some time back for their team on cyber crime and someone from Facebook had come down to give a talk. The CB-CID put in a word unofficially for us,” he said.
But by 27 June, unable to stand the ‘shame’, Vinupriya committed suicide. On 28 June, Facebook emailed across to Salem Cyber Crime police, the IP details of the account which put up the morphed pictures. Once they had the IP addresses, it was a matter of hours – sifting through 50 IP addresses, zeroing in on 300 phone numbers and then crossing off the red herrings took a mere 12 hours. The accused was arrested from next door to Vinupriya’s home, a jilted boyfriend, who wanted revenge.
Miffed with Facebook
The trouble with Facebook, according to Tamil Nadu police, is that they are pretty much a law unto themselves. The process of communication with the social media giant itself is rather vague. Facebook has a list of email addresses provided by respective governments, authorised to make such requests. Send an email from any other account and Facebook will not respond.
Once an email is sent from the authorised law enforcer’s email address, Facebook sends back an automated reply with a link – the link shows the status of the sender’s request. “We ourselves cannot block any account on Facebook in such cases,” explained the police officer. “We can only request Facebook to do so. We have no one to contact personally in Facebook India either. We just have to send the email and wait and pray that Facebook will respond soon,” he said.
In Vinupriya’s case, thanks to the state CB-CID putting in a word unofficially, Facebook blocked the account and coughed up the IP details within five days. But in most other cases, Facebook has taken as long as a month to respond, say law enforcers.
“The police can effectively combat cyber crime where Facebook is involved, if Facebook does two things,” said Amit Kumar Singh, Superintendent of Police (SP), Salem district. “First, Facebook should treat a report of abuse from Law Enforcement agencies seriously by blocking the account or taking the picture down immediately. Second, they should not delay in responding to law enforcement agencies – everything is digital as far as Facebook is concerned. Why then is there a delay of five days or a month? Send the details requested immediately,” he said.
Officers are also frustrated because in many cases, Facebook refuses to block content, citing its own policies. Facebook usually blocks content which is violent and related to child pornography or abuse. In cases where pictures are uploaded without the consent of the subject, Facebook has, in the past, refused to remove such offending pictures, citing freedom of expression.
“Freedom of expression has been taken by Facebook to an imaginary infinite level,” said G Thilakavathy, former Director General of Police, Tamil Nadu. “It is being seen in the American context. But the Indian mindset is different. Facebook has to look at things in terms of the culture of the respective country,” she said.
“In Vinupriya’s case, it was a clearly morphed picture,” said the police officer who was involved in the case. “What happens in the case of a real picture, an intimate one, being uploaded? It could happen to anyone. A girl and a boy in a relationship may share such pictures on WhatsApp or email. If the relationship breaks up, the boy, in anger, may upload it to spite the girl. There are so many cases like this. What happens then if Facebook refuses to respond or remove the picture which is clearly used without her consent? Imagine the poor girl’s plight and the stigma she will face,” he said.
Thilakavathy agrees that it is important for Facebook to engage with law enforcers more actively so that young lives like Vinupriya’s are not lost. “Their (American) world view is very different to ours,” she said. “I do not think Facebook will engage with our culture. They will ask – what is wrong if she sent it to her boyfriend and he uploaded it? If Facebook decides to at least act immediately on complaints and take down offending pictures or videos, that in itself is a big thing. But the state government cannot do anything, it is the Centre that must make the negotiations,” she added.
Cyber experts though feel that Facebook is doing its best to ensure privacy in its global network. “I think privacy as a matter would be the same whether you are an Indian or a Pakistani or a Mexican,” said Kiruba Shankar, CEO of Business Blogging and a professor of Digital Marketing. “Honestly I am impressed with the way Facebook has been putting privacy at the top of its priorities. I think the problem arises with our lack of knowledge about Facebook’s settings. Many of us are not aware that we can micro-target who sees our posts. You can turn off people who you don’t want to see on your timeline,” he said.
Facebook staring at criminal proceedings?
The Tamil Nadu police have suddenly been jolted into action in the wake of the untimely death of Vinupriya. Complaints of a similar nature – of identity theft and photos being uploaded on Facebook without prior consent of the subject – have been increasing at the Cyber Crime cell of the state, although exact details are not public. Most of these cases, police say, are easily detected since the offender is usually someone known to the victim. Vinupriya’s is the first case that has resulted in death. And Tamil Nadu police want to pre-empt any more such cases.
“We are examining all legal aspects on how to enforce compliance of Indian laws by Facebook,” said Amit Kumar Singh, Salem SP. “We are also exploring the possibility of holding Facebook accountable in this case, since a life has been lost and one of the factors was the delay on the part of Facebook in cooperating with the investigation.”
The police though are flummoxed by a few knotty details. Facebook is faceless at present – the police have no idea who to serve the summons to – Mark Zuckerberg? Facebook India CEO? The person who maintains the servers? Another issue is where to send any legal notice or summons to – Facebook has offices all over the world but its servers are in Ireland.
“This is something that needs to be taken up by the Central government since Facebook’s servers are in Dublin,” said former DGP Thilakavathy. “India has to tell Facebook firmly – once a complaint is made our country, Facebook has to do the needful immediately, on request of law enforcement agencies,” she said.
Cyber experts and police agree on one point – the need for Facebook to take into account the sensitivity of the Indian society and to ensure that more tools are given to the user to protect themselves from online harassment.
“Facebook has the capability to match pictures – what is called facial recognition,” said Salem SP Amit Kumar Singh. “While images are being uploaded, Facebook should alert you if the picture looks like you – it can ask a question – ‘this looks like you, XYZ is trying to upload this picture, are you okay with this?’ That could solve a lot of privacy issues and prevent unwanted uploads of pictures,” he opined.
Cyber expert Kiruba Shankar agrees. “Facebook has facial recognition software in place. It is not refined yet, but I am sure over a period of time, this will be implemented. Facebook has a very strong reporting feature on Facebook. Unfortunately the reporting feature is currently automated – so only if a critical mass of people report an issue, then Facebook reacts. That is a system that they can definitely develop further,” he said. Shankar also added that Facebook would do well to conduct an awareness program online to educate young users on the do’s and don’t’s of using the social network.
What then of the likes of Vinupriya, who did not even own a Facebook account? “All that we can do is tell the people, especially our young girls, not to worry about these kinds of things,” said former DGP Thilakavathy. “Be bold enough to face it. It is not the end of the world if a picture – real or morphed – appears on social media. That is what they need to learn,” she said.
Facebook did not respond to an email questionnaire sent on this issue.