Umesh Kumar Ray | Aug 22, 2019 | 8 min read


Umesh Kumar Ray

In July, the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Police had to transfer an entire SWAT team for a seemingly innocuous little transgression. The five police officers had filmed slow-mo action shots of themselves – solo and in a group - strutting purposefully towards the camera, cocking their guns and pretend-firing at invisible bad guys. Staged against a high-voltage Haryanvi song, the whole video was so cringe and entertaining that it made viral waves across the country. Who could resist watching cocky cops making a spectacle of them while trying to look cool. It’s almost endearing. But the top brass wasn’t amused. “We do not sanction unprofessional display of weapons and grotesque caricaturing of police,” the UP Police had said in a statement addressing the issue.

Over the past weeks, several cases have been reported in India of police officers being cautioned or suspended for sharing videos of themselves in uniform or while they were at work. All these videos had one thing in common – they were created over the viral video-sharing app, TikTok. Launched in the country last August by China-based start-up ByteDance, the app allows users to make and share videos of themselves against short audio bytes. These are often movie dialogues or songs and are available in 15 Indian languages.

It caught on like wildfire among the cinema-mad Indian public, in urban pockets and remote villages alike. Mobile internet data has been becoming cheaper and a large percentage of India’s 637 million internet users access the Internet through their mobile phone. Within a year, TikTok has around 200 million users in India, out of these around 120 million users are active every month. The exploding popularity of the app among teens and young adults had raised alarms over online security of minors.

It was even removed from app stores briefly this April, after the Madras High Court prohibited downloading the app and ordered media to not telecast videos made via TikTok. This was in response to a Public Interest Litigation that argued that the app was “degrading culture”, “causing pedophiles” (!) and leading to “social stigma and medical health issues” among teens. The ban was only interim, however, and was lifted one week later by the same court.

Meanwhile, police chiefs have had to deal with a sudden spurt in viral videos of police men and women on the app - from duets to dancing and stunts with police cars, the public has been lapping up such content. In July, police constable Arpita Chaudhary (24) in Northern Gujarat, posted a TikTok-made video of herself, lip-syncing to a Hindi song and dancing in the police station. It was an instant hit among her 16,000-odd followers, but not so much with the bosses. She was in civilian clothes and the video was merely 15 seconds, nonetheless she was suspended immediately. In an ironic turn of events, the officer who had investigated the matter – Assistant Commissioner of Police Manjita Vanzara (30) – was left red-faced after a TikTok video of her surfaced. In fact, in Gujarat, this had become such a menace that the Director General of Police, Shivanand Jha had to issue a circular asking all police personnel “not indulge in any act that would attract public criticism and tarnish the image of a disciplined police force".

Of course, this phenomenon isn’t restricted by geography, gender, job profile or age. From Delhi to Tamil Nadu and Gujarat to Telangana higher-ups have had to bring the hammer down on these ‘errant’ officers of the law. A constable in a women’s police station in Ahmedabad filmed herself in a ‘duet’, or duologue, of cheeky one-liners. An inquiry has been initiated to find out where and how video was shot.  A sub-inspector in Vadodara was moved from Crime Detection to Traffic after the viral fame of a video of him, in uniform, lip syncing theatrically inside the police station. Recently, two women constables with the Delhi Police were subjected to a probe after a video of them lip syncing to a song went viral. "We are investigating the matter as to when and how the video was made. After the inquiry is completed, we will decide what action should be taken against them," Delhi Police spokesperson Anil Mittal told Ozy. "Making these videos during work will distract them from discharging their duties,” he said, adding that it is a matter of discipline as well.

But there is more to this story than a bunch of stiff collars clamping down on some harmless fun. While the government or the police did not particularly cite security concerns in the recent spate of suspensions, cyber experts believe this is serious issue, beyond discipline or adult content.

Last month Congress MP Shashi Tharoor had said in the parliament said that ByteDance was illegally collecting data through the TikTok app and sending it to the Chinese Government. He expressed apprehension that this data might be misused, with consequences for national security. Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the economic wing of the Hindutva group Rashtriya Swayam Sangh, had written to the Prime Minister’s Office seeking a ban on the app for engaging in “anti-national activities". Following this, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has send a questionnaire to the company, and it is still not clear what plans, if any, the government has for TikTok.

The company refuted these allegations, of course, saying it doesn’t operate in China (which is only partly true. TikTok is, in fact, banned in China and the company had to launch a separate app - Douyin -  for the Chinese market to comply with Beijing’s strict censorship on data use). Perhaps in an attempt to soothe such fears, ByteDance announced in July that “in recognition of India’s efforts to frame a new data protection legislation”, they will be establishing a data centre in India instead of saving user data in third-party in the US and Singapore. India is crucial market for them; when TikTok was off the app stores in April, ByteDance claimed that it incurred a loss of $500,000, each day of the week. And this is even with existing users still being able to use the app during the interim ban.

Amit Jaju, an independent cyber expert, told Ozy, "Once an application is installed in the mobile phone with the requisite permissions, it will have access to location, phone records, messages, contacts and other sensitive information.” Apps that give consumer the option to login with their social media accounts, like TikTok, could compromised that data as well. “If these vital details could be reaching China, then it is obviously a serious issue.”

Sandeep Sengupta, another Cyber expert told Ozy, “If the app has taken permission to access your location, it can be used to keep surveillance on you. If the app can read your OTP, then your banking transactions can be accessed. If the app seeks permissions for your microphone, it can listen to everything around you." Enough reasons to ensure the people in the business of security, with their proximity to confidential information, must not have such apps on their phones.

In 2017, the Indian government had listed 42 Chinese apps as potentially harmful for Indian security and ordered army officers and personnel to uninstall them. Truecaller, Weibo, WeChat, UC browser, SHAREit were among them. Perhaps the state might consider extending the ban to all government officials. “The government should issue some strict guidelines for police personnel and government employees regarding use of these kinds of apps.” But the government wakes up only when something goes wrong," Sengupta says. It’s all rather amusing until the right information falls into the wrong hands.


So, experts believe, firstly it is unlikely that government will ban the app and even if it decides to ban there are many issues which need to address. Amit Jaju explains, “Technically the government can never ban the application. First option is Indian government can tell the Google to remove the app from its store but Google have its own policy. If Google feels that app has no adverse impact, then it will not remove TikTok. Second option is it (government) will tell telecom operators to disable the IP address of TikTok. If telecom operators will do this then their business will be impacted. It will also go against net neutrality. The third option is interference at company level where government can directly tell the company (ByteDance) to stop service in India but then company can claim that they have no option to identify the nationality of people who logs in the App.”



India isn’t the only country that has initiated action against TikTok. Last year Indonesia government banned TikTok on the charges of pornography and blasphemy. This year in February, the US charged TikTok with collecting personal data of children under 13 without the consent of their parents. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a body who works to protect consumer rights had fined TikTok in the tune of $5.7 million. The same month Bangladesh banned the app. In the UK, TikTok is under investigation for using personal data of young users. Last week, a Pakistani lawyer has filled a case at Lahore High Court seeking ban on TikTok in Pakistan citing that this is becoming source of pornography and vulgarity.



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