Stronger policing needed to keep digital highways secure

As for criminal fraudsters, the preferred entry line keeps changing – from facilitating an MSME loan for a fee, to posing as a courier company threatening to report a non-existent package of drugs.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

As consumers of information and communication, most of us are victims of a daily barrage of pesky telemarketers. They think nothing of using our mobile phones as free soliciting devices. Then there are the criminals who use voice calls, and messaging for robbing us of our hard-earned money. Considering the scale of the problem, the government is just not doing enough.

The worst offenders using telemarketers are banks, insurance companies and builders. As for criminal fraudsters, the preferred entry line keeps changing – from facilitating an MSME loan for a fee, to posing as a courier company threatening to report a non-existent package of drugs.

The malaise has reached gargantuan proportions. India unfortunately has become one of the largest phone-based phishing markets because of the high use and low tariffs of mobile networks. There are various estimates. One claims there are more than 120-150 million phishing messages sent every month, and one of 12 users is entrapped. Only one-tenth of the victims report the crime, and even less get their money back.

‘Misinformation’ could pose a greater risk to the country than infectious diseases, illicit economic activity and labour shortages, a ‘Global Risk Report’ from the World Economic Forum warned in January this year. Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven ‘disinformation’ could destabilize governments, and the targeted impact during the election process could lead to erosion of democracy and violence, the report said.

New government move

The government has finally decided to act. Calls and messages that violate privacy will be classified as ‘Unfair Trade Practices’, and a new set of ‘Guidelines for Unsolicited and Unwarranted Business Communication, 2024’will be issued under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019.

Those benefiting from unsolicited calls – both the commission agents and their primary clients like banks, insurance companies, and realtors – will be held liable and face penalties.It will also be mandatory for telecom operators to display the identity of every caller, including their name and sector, so consumers can decide whether to take that call or reject it.

This has been made possible by the new amended 2019 Consumer Protection Act, which has more teeth than its earlier 1986 avatar. The new act has set up an apex Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) and e-commerce transactions have now been brought under the provisions involving direct sales.

Criminal liability too has been added. Misleading and fraudulent ads now attracts a fine of Rs 10 lakh in the first instance as well as imprisonment of 2 years. Fines for a repeat offence can go up to Rs 50 lakh, and a prison term of 7 years.

Poor digital policing

However, the problem is how to police the digital highways effectively. The technology and scope of digital fraud and misrepresentation has exploded so fast, that the policing machinery has not been able to keep abreast.

The knowledge community in India is far larger and with better skills than any other competitive market. A joint study by internet giant Microsoft and professional networking site LinkedIn has found that a staggering 92% of knowledge workers across diverse sectors actively integrate artificial intelligence (AI) tools into their daily workflows, compared to the global average of 75%.

It is therefore not surprising that India is way ahead in using AI to mislead audiences and perpetrate commercial fraud. For instance, a doctored video of Prime Minister Modi dancing has gone viral with 30 million views, and is being used widely in the current Lok Sabha election campaign.

Meanwhile, India’s digital Unified Payment Interface (UPI), where funds are routed mainly via the mobile phone, is a huge success with 300 million people on the platform. It is an active hunting ground for the fraudster community.

Given the large, shadowy cyber world, misrepresentation and pesky calls by telemarketers is just the tip of the iceberg. They are easily traceable and can be brought to book under the new ‘unfair trade practices’ code. However, the criminal gangs operating on the mobile highways looting ordinary people of crores every day, is a bigger challenge the government is yet to address.

Information is hazy but according to the National Cybercrime Reporting Portal (NCRP), in 2023, Rs 10,319 crore was reported lost by victims of digital financial fraud. The Parliamentary standing committee on Finance in its report on “cyber security and rising incidents of cyber/white collar crimes” valued domestic fraud at Rs 2,537 crore for FY2023. According to the report, the number of complaints received in 2023 alone was 6.94 lakh.

Digital engagement and transactions always leave a trail. Therefore, it is not too difficult to trace cyber criminals if the policing network is active and efficient. Some states have set up dedicated cyber police stations, but their reach in limited.

In recent months the government has been active in legislating a slew of acts – the proposed Broadcast Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, the Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, 2023, and the Digital India Bill, 2023, to name a few. These are mainly directed to control online content with a specific eye on digital news media. If the same energy is exhibited to control cyber criminals, perhaps the returns will be better.

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