Friday, July 4, 2008

Can police make chat, email transcripts public?

The leakage of chat transcripts by the UP Police to the media is an infringement on individual privacy
B.F. Firos Friday, June 06, 2008

BANGALORE, INDIA: Recently the Chennai Police nabbed a young lady aged around 25 in Bangalore for hacking the email account of a person from Nilgiris.

The alleged culprit is believed to have misused the victim's email account by siphoning off the demanded money from the victim's contacts.

Here the main case was that the lady hacked the email ID.

But what if the police itself commit such acts, in utter disregard for individual privacy?

At the outset one can call it a knee-jerk and indecent behavior by the guardians of the law. But when it comes to protecting the privacy of individuals, doesn't this point to kinks in the penal laws of the country?

The case relates to the inappropriate behavior demonstrated by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police in regards to the case of 14-year-old girl Arushi Talwar, who was found dead inside her home in Noida.

The UP Police showed no hesitation when it leaked transcripts of the chats and emails Arushi had with three of her intimate pals. The transcripts are said to be part of the case papers the police had produced before the court.

Legal experts are unanimous in their view that UP police's action cannot be justified by any manner. They feel that their action is an infringement on the right to privacy of an individual, a human rights violation and runs contrary to many of the court rulings pertaining to individual privacy.

Even though the police as a law enforcement agency have the right to access to the email or chat scripts, this right certainly does not confer any permission for the police to publish the mail/chat transcripts.

According to Chennai-based V Rajendran, director-treasurer, Cyber Society of India, such records are essentially case documents and have to be treated as such only. "Information Technology Act (IT Act) recognizes electronic records and enforces the evidentiary value of such electronic records. Hence emails and chat transcripts are certainly electronic records and can be produced in a court of law. But that does not mean that such records can be published," said V Rajendran.

He said that the mere fact that such an act is committed by the police does not dilute the seriousness of the act nor does it absolve the police of its responsibility of data protection.

Why did the police resort to such an act? He attributed to this to the over enthusiasm of police in showing to the media their capability of busting a "cyber crime" or a "tech-savvy approach" to tracing a computer-based crime.

"Even if the law enforcement agencies have the statutory protection for an act of accessing the private correspondence of people such a protection, I don't think they can leak it to the media. IT Act even with its powers of seizure, search and warrant etc doesn't give such powers to the police," he said.

A top police official with the cyber cell preferring anonymity told CyberMedia News that the police can access email and chat for the purpose of enquiry; but in this case, the police "should have avoided" distributing the transcripts to the media.

According to cyber law expert Na. Vijayashankar, the collection of information relevant to the investigation cannot be faulted but the publication of the information particularly when the investigation was under progress was not appropriate.
"By doing so they might have actually hampered the investigation. Unless the police can defend their action by stating that they seeded the information in public space so as to trap the real killer, there is no justification for their action", he said.

According to Naavi remedy in this case should be sought as a "human rights violation" since it amounted to character assassination of another person, more so when the person is dead, more so when it is a young girl.

In India "Privacy" is a right protected under the constitutional rights (Article 21).

According to advocate N.H. Anantha Sastry, since the victim is no longer alive, the parents can seek damages by suing the police, Uttar Pradesh home department, home secretary and DIG of police.

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