Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mumbai Police: A note of appreciation

For more than two and a half years now, I have been 'cyber-stalked' by a person who will, for obvious reasons, be nameless in this piece. Through this period, when the e-stalking continued somewhat unremittingly, I was the recipient of some 15-20 emails a day on average. These emails contained taunts, abuse, insults and objectionable material. These were directed at me initially. I did not know this person at all and all of this attention was totally unsolicited and unprovoked. Many of these emails left me totally dismayed and completely numb. Soon, the abuse extended to include my wife and a few close friends of mine too. Soon, every tweet of mine would be analyzed over several abusive emails. Some of the emails contained needlessly explicit material too. I blocked the sender and filtered their emails out, but they would change their email id and continue to send these totally depressing emails. Despite two warnings, the torrent of offense continued unabated.

In this period, I would often think of complaining to the authorities, but then I was always overwhelmed by a sense of lassitude. I did not act.

Many of us will have, I am sure, thought of paying a visit to the police to file a harassment case against a persistent online pest. We may have, at times, lacked the courage, the strength, the time and the motivation to go through with a complaint. In addition, we tend to believe myths that circulate about the police, especially in India, and fear the arduousness of the process. Either that or we may give up because we may have formed a view that the police are generally not effective anyway.

Yes, it is hard to go through with the process of lodging the complaint with all the accompanying paper work and the filing of that report.

But, do it. Do not believe the myths. Just file that complaint.

Some four weeks ago, after issuing a final warning to this e-stalker, I snapped out of my lethargy, mainly due to the advice of friends of mine who couldn't believe that I would tolerate the extent of insults and abuse I was coping with. I sleep-walked out of my indolence and reluctantly submitted a written complaint to the Cyber CrimeInvestigation Cell of Mumbai Police. Reluctantly, because of the perception I had formed that such processes are incredibly messy and often pointless.

A written complaint is not easy to construct. Mine was 60 pages long -- a three-page cover letter and annotated print outs of a sample of the emails I had received (there were too many emails -- on average 15 emails per day over a 3 year period -- to print them all out). I provided them with as much information as I could. Emails contain headers that enable them to track the perpetrator. I did not receive SMS's, but if people who read this have received many unwanted and unsolicited SMS's or Whatsapp messages from the same person, collate these in a report and include the time and content of these too.

I compiled my report and my cover letter and lodged it with the Cyber Cell. I expected that nothing would happen.

I was so wrong.

I followed up with them a week after I lodged my complaint. The inspector said "Leave it with us, we will take care of this and get back to you," something I haven't heard from any other person in that position. The voice was reassuring and the message was undeniably kind and calming. A week later, he called to say that they had made progress and that the case was being handled by an expert in his office. He gave me the name and number of this person and asked me to feel free to contact them. A few days later, the cyber cell had identified the cyber stalker, established the veracity of my report and warned the person to cease their unprovoked activities. That warning was enough to get the stalker off my back.

I wanted to share this for two reasons.

First, if you are being cyber harassed, do not sit on your hands for as long as I did. When someone uses technology, such as email, chat or SMS, to target a victim -- either known to them or unknown -- by sending them a stream of unsolicited material with an intent to harass, threaten, humiliate or intimidate, this is cyber-stalking. And it is wrong. It is very much like “physical” stalking and it is mostly anonymous and almost always unprovoked and/or unsolicited. Cyber stalkers often believe that their anonymity and perceived lack of traceability gives them the comfort and the safety of 'technological distance' from the victim. But they, like a physical stalker, intrude on the victim's digital footprint, which is as important these days as our physical space. All of us have a right to our peace of mind and our personal space. The point is this. The stalker often has no appreciation of the impact that their taunts and abuse have on the person whose privacy they routinely assault. They just do it to feed their own obsessions or fantasies. On the other hand, the abused seldom take action because of the perceived laboriousness or ineffectiveness of the complaints process.

Lesson-1: Do not wait for as long as I did. Complain immediately.

Second, I want to applaud the cyber crime investigation cell of the Mumbai Police. If ever you need any help do not hesitate to call them or write to them. Their complaints process is not really arduous if you truly value your space, peace and sanity. These guys are warm, friendly, understanding and extremely approachable. They are also quick to help and, going by my experience, they appear to resolve matters.

Lesson-2: Your complaint often gets looked into promptly and professionally.

The cyber crime investigation cell of the Mumbai Police is, in my experience, a very thorough and professional unit. We are quick to criticize the police but must also provide appreciation of the good work they do.

For me, this was an excellent example of quick, efficient work by the Mumbai Police.

Bravo guys. 

-- Mohan (@mohank)