From WhatsApp relaying photos of missing persons to posting rewards for robbers on Facebook, cops across India are using social media to solve crimes
On March 2 Parminder Singh, 11, was reported missing from Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. While railway stations, bus stands and local parks were combed, the boy’s photo and mobile phone numbers of his family and the police were sent to WhatsApp users across Bareilly city via different service providers. One of the users to receive the message was Danish, an engineering student and resident of Biharipur , Bareilly travelling on the Doon Express, who identified the boy sitting in front of him as Parminder. By 11 pm, the case was solved.
Two days later, the Mumbai police cracked the case of a ‘missing’ student, 16, who had been ‘kidnapped’ by his teacher, 23 on January 25. The Mumbai crime branch unit VIII, that had been tracking their social network accounts, found them after the boy logged on to Facebook. Tracing the IP address of the computer he used, the cops tracked the boy down via a cyber cafe owner in Bangalore.
With a number of cases leaving digital footprints, Indian policemen are fast turning into social media sleuths, scanning Facebook, Twitter and blogs for leads that will help solve crimes.
And in recognition of this changing landscape of law enforcement, police personnel who are part of district and state-level cyber crime cells are being educated on how to use social media. Police training colleges too have programmes to give recruits some handy tips. “While most new recruits are adept at using Facebook and Twitter, we train them on how to use them for detection,” says Robin Hibu, joint commissioner (training), adding there are compulsory courses for station house officers (SHOs) and assistant commissioners of police (ACPs) too.
The Bareilly police station, where WhatsApp was used to trace a missing boy, has a full-fledged cyber crime and surveillance wing where a team of over a dozen specially trained police personnel from the rank of inspector to constable are at work cracking cases. Surendra Pratap Singh, superintendent (SP), crime, says, “They have been trained by the special cell of the cyber crime wing of the state police in Lucknow.” Singh claims his cyber cell is equipped with “laptops with the latest configuration” necessary to investigate cases of online lottery frauds, ATM hacking, etc. JS Ravinder Gaud, senior superintendent (SSP), Bareilly, reveals that similar cyber cells have been set up across all important UP state districts, and in many cases, have co-ordinated with international law enforcement agencies like Interpol to facilitate arrest warrants against cyber criminals.
Himanshu Roy, additional director general of police (anti-terrorist squad), Maharashtra, says, “We encourage the use of technology amongst police officers to communicate effectively with each other for expeditious investigation of crime.” In some instances, local cops have even beaten specialists to solve cases using social media. Police constable Jayesh Ghoderao, attached to Vinoba Bhave Nagar police station in Kurla (W) Mumbai, tracked down a fraudster who went by the name Aryan Joshi and duped a 16-year-old girl of Rs 5.75 lakh jewellery before the cyber specialists. Ghoderao, who had an account on the same networking site where the two met, found Joshi’s real mobile number through diligent monitoring , identified him as Rakesh Wankhede and nabbed him.
Some police stations have their own Facebook pages, used to reach out to citizens to help track criminals. The Indore police uploaded photos of two criminals accused of robbing Rs 60 lakh from a bank on Facebook, offering a Rs 3.5 lakh reward. “After police in some cities managed to get leads on criminals through social networking sites, we are also trying to take its help,” a police official said.
Others use Facebook to become more accessible to citizens. When Bangalore resident Akshay Kingar posted a photograph of two eve-teasers on the Bangalore City Police’s Facebook page on March 8 last year, the police responded with a blow-by-blow account of their investigation online, which culminated in an arrest on March 13.
Mumbai and Delhi’s traffic police use social media to allow users to post photos of traffic offenders, who are prosecuted based on the photos posted. Recently Mumbai’s Central Railway (CR) also decided to zero in on offenders — bag-lifters , pickpockets, molesters, rooftop travellers — by WhatsApping their photos to ticket-checkers , railway protection force (RPF) and government railway police personnel. The ambitious Crime and Criminal Trackin g Network System (CCTNS), a Rs 2,000 crore project launched by the Centre in 2009 with the ambitious plan of linking the nation’s 14,000 police stations and 6,000 supervisory offices, is being rolled out to provide cops with the tools, technology and information to facilitate criminal investigations . But in the meantime, many cops are using social media in a personal capacity. Often, it has led to breakthroughs at work. K Bhavaneeshwari, former deputy commissioner of police, Kilpauk, Chennai, recalls how her use of Facebook helped her investigate the disappearance of Sanket B Mehta, a Class 12 student. Having used the social media site to connect with former batchmates and colleagues, Bhavaneeshwari thought of checking whether the missing boy communicated with friends online . Cyber crime experts began monitoring the boy’s Facebook account, and traced him to Bangalore.
Hibu claims that social media training and usage has become mandatory after information about protests began being conveyed via Facebook. “After the death of Nido Tania, a north-east student , the police kept tabs on how and where protests would be held via social media,” says a senior police official. A November 2013 CBI report on Social Media and Law Enforcement, citing the number of Indians on social media, emphasizes the importance of leveraging social media platforms including YouTube, blogs and other discussion forums to maintain law and order. In March 2013, the Mumbai police set up India’s first “social media lab” where a specially-trained team of 20 police officers track issues being publicly discussed relating to public order. As Singh puts it, “Google Baba is our biggest information supplier today.”