The Delhi Police is all set to go cyber patrolling to "pre-empt terror and law and order situations" by monitoring social networking sites in a move that is likely to trigger a debate on freedom of expression.
The move is part of the Delhi Police's 'Safe City' project and as the next step, a dedicated team of online experts - yet to be put together - will be asked to monitor 'offensive content' and gauge trends with social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, said a source associated with the program. The ultimate aim would be to get such content removed as soon as possible if and when needed and combat 'misinformation with correct information', said the source.
"It may seem special at first but it is merely our extension on the internet. Whichever way one looks at it, the importance of cyberspace or the need of security agencies to keep an eye on it, can no longer be denied," said a Delhi Police officer on condition of anonymity.
With the guidance of central intelligence agencies, personnel of "certain elite divisions", especially those from the special branch, of the Delhi Police will go undercover on social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Their job will be to track, observe and take pre-emptive action to tackle large public gatherings or riot-like situations triggered by 'false propaganda' spread through posts, trends and status messages.
"Both crime and terrorism can be controlled if nipped in the bud," said another officer. "Once online trends are successfully gauged, we will be able to formulate effective strategies," said the officer.
The police insist that they would restrict themselves to monitoring and there would be no attempt at censorship.
But, internet surveillance remains a touchy topic. The US faced severe criticism after Edward Snowden, a fugitive American computer specialist and a former CIA and National Security Agency employee, went public with mass surveillance programs of his and British governments.
The police presence on networking sites will allow them to gather intelligence by monitoring emerging trends and also combat propaganda, said another officer.
Country's internal spy agency Intelligence Bureau already keeps a close watch on internet traffic.
According to sources, the Delhi Police move came after media reported about the London Metropolitan Police's public Twitter handle having prevented mobbing of British Prime Minister David Cameron recently. The effective monitoring of social media in combating riots that battered the UK capital in late 2011, too, swung the opinion in Delhi.
Citing security concerns, officers associated with the project refused to give a time frame for the launch. HT, however, has learnt that a tender to acquire hardware to fortify servers for internet monitoring had been floated and a series of meetings held to discuss the implementation.
Unofficial monitoring of social networking sites has led to the identification and arrests of some alleged Indian Mujahideen operatives through the scrutiny of the Facebook profiles of their associates.
In November 2011, tracking of online activities of the associates of the IM operatives arrested from Chennai's Selaiyur had led the police to more members of the terror outfit.