Hyderabad: Cops face criticism for checking Whatsapp chats during ‘drug’ checks

Hyderabad: The city police seem to have a leaf out of the Narcotic Control Bureau’s book as cops in the city were seen asking citizens to show their phones to check Whatsapp chats in order to ascertain if one is consuming or peddling drugs.

On Wednesday, Siasat published a video report showing the city police officials randomly frisking people in the Dhoolpet area and even asking them to show phones to read Whatsapp chats. Clips of the video soon went viral on social media, inviting severe criticism against the city police. People pointed out that checking a citizen’s smartphone is a violation of the right to privacy, which is part of our fundamental rights.

Over the past week, the Hyderabad police have gone all out to crack down on drug peddling and have been making several arrests. While one can understand the regular police patrolling to keep a check on crimes, but cops asking people to show their phones and going through their Whatsapp chats is clearly an invasion of one’s privacy.

Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher on data and privacy, said that the Hyderabad police is violating the fundamental rights of citizens without cause. “These searches are not unconstitutional and the police seem to be doing these experiments with impunity in Hyderabad,” he told Siasat.com.

When contacted, a senior police official told Siasat.com that no such orders have been given to officials to check Whatsapp chats. The official also denied that the same was being done. However, the deputy commissioner of police of the south zone, Gajarao Bhupal was quoted by The News Minute as saying that he is aware of phones being checked. “However, we are not forcing anybody nor are we snatching away their phones to check. People are cooperating and no one is complaining, so I don’t think there is anything illegal.”

It may be noted that in 2017, the Supreme Court of India had ruled that the right to privacy is protected under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. In such a case, few lawyers, who spoke to Siasat.com on condition of anonymity, stated that the police has no business asking to check or read someone’s Whatsapp chats without any cause.

“Unless and until they have valid authority, they cannot take anyone’s personal belongings or phones. People can ask on what authority they are asking something. They can do a normal search, but checking personal chats is snooping in broad daylight,” said a lawyer from the Telangana high court.

Even the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) questioned the Hyderabad police for checking phones and Whatsapp chats.

The IFF termed the police action “illegal” and said it is “tantamount to a general warrant.”

Crack down on drugs

On Thursday, officials from the Kamatipura police station and task force team arrested three persons who were found to be in possession of Nitravet and Alpracard tablets. A press release from the police said that the accused Syed Masood, Syed Mohammed and Arun K, were selling the tablets to “drug-addicted customers” and to “needy customers” without any prescription. All three run medical halls.

On Wednesday, the Hyderabad police arrested two people who were found to be in possession of 26 kilograms of ganja. On October 25, the police in a special drive registered 13 FIRs and arrested 21 people in drug-related cases. This special drive by cops is mostly linked to Telangana chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao’s missive to the department on curbing drug peddling in the state. In a meeting on October 21, he declared an “all-out war” on drugs.