Tek Fog: A new cyber-troop cracking down on human rights

Applications such as Tek Fog are a direct attack on civil liberties.


ON January 6, The Wire,  posted reports of a 20 months-long investigation that began after a former Bharatiya Janata Party’s (‘BJP’) IT-Cell employee blew the whistle on the party’s use of an app called Tek Fog.

Tek Fog has been identified as a highly sophisticated application, used by online operatives from the incumbent party, to hijack major social media and encrypted messaging platforms, and amplify right-wing propaganda to a domestic audience. The whistle-blower tweeted and revealed that Tek Fog is a secret application solely for BJP’s IT cell workers that is used for auto-uploading texts and hashtag trends on social media platforms by bypassing checks on these platforms to prevent such activity.

“Tek Fog has been identified as a highly sophisticated application used by online operatives from the incumbent party, to hijack major social media and encrypted messaging platforms and amplify right-wing propaganda to a domestic audience.”

The investigation report revealed that various measures had been taken through the app, including discriminatory algorithmic codes, to target journalists, spread communal hatred, and amplify right-wing propaganda in the country. It is important to expound upon the ramifications of such an application on the human rights of an individual.

Also read: An App Called Tek Fog Helps Cyber Troops With Links to BJP Automate Hate Online, an Investigation Reveals

Chilling effect on international human rights tenets

India has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1976 (‘ICCPR’) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 (‘UDHR’), which are part of customary international law, and is legally bound to comply with their provisions.

Article 19 of the ICCPR guarantees the right to hold opinions without interference, without exception. The right to receive free and fair information is a subset of this right since access to information is a prerequisite to exercise the right to freedom of expression to its fullest possible extent.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee’s (‘UNHRC’) General Comment No. 34 to Article 19 states that a free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is a sine qua non to ensure freedom of expression and opinion, and other rights under the ICCPR. This implies that a free press and other intermediaries must be able to comment on public issues, without censorship or bias, and inform public opinion. Moreover, the ICCPR casts a duty on State parties to take particular care to encourage an independent and diverse media.

The algorithmic configuration of Tek Fog is such that it is used to perpetually create bias in the information environment by hijacking the ‘Trending’ sections of Twitter and Facebook. The application automates ‘auto-retweet’ or ‘auto-share’ features, wherein accounts controlled by the BJP IT cell spam pre-decided hashtags and engineer the public narrative. This makes extremist narratives and political campaigns appear more popular than they actually are.

The freedom to receive free and fair information has ramifications on various other rights; one of them is the freedom to hold opinions. Indoctrination of citizens and promotion of one-sided information by the government becomes a serious obstacle to the development of opinions, thereby infringing upon the freedom of expression and opinion.

Also read: Bulli Bai and cyber violence: a symptom of power imbalance

Algorithmic hate speech

Apart from the freedom of expression and opinion, applications such as Tek Fog violates freedom from discrimination. Article 7 of the UDHR equally protects all against any forms of discrimination and incitement to discrimination. Hate speech violates freedom from discrimination since it employs pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender, or other identity factors.

Hate speech, fake news, hashtag trends and political propaganda were curated and tested on Sharechat, a popular Indian regional language social media platform, before they were automated to other social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp.

“The algorithmic configuration of Tek Fog is such that it is used to create bias perpetually in the information environment by hijacking the ‘trending’ sections of Twitter and Facebook.”

The Wire’s investigating team’s findings were substantiated after all the posts shared on Sharechat were fed into an IBM Watson tone analyser, a natural language processing tool capable of detecting emotional and language tones. These posts were then classified into different emotional and tonal labels and subsequently, emotional posts were further classified into four categories – racist, casteist, sexist or none.

Posts that fell under the first three categories were labelled ‘hate speech’, which amounted to 90 per cent of the posts. Approximately 58 per cent of the total posts reviewed (that is, 2.2 million out of 3.8 million posts) were labelled as ‘hate speech’. This result was cross verified using Comprehend, another natural language processing tool.

Also read: How hate speech hollows Indian democracy

Egregious privacy violation

Article 12 of the UDHR states that no one shall be subjected to any interference with one’s privacy. Similarly, Article 17 of the ICCPR prohibits any arbitrary or unlawful interference with one’s privacy, family, home or correspondence, or any unlawful attacks on one’s honour and reputation. Further, the UNHRC’s General Comment No. 16 to Article 17 of the ICCPR states that the term “unlawful” implies that any interference must have a legal backing to the same.

However, a mere legal sanction to interference does not permit intrusion in privacy, and it must be non-arbitrary, that is, the law must comply with the provisions, aims and objectives of the ICCPR. Arbitrariness is assessed on grounds of a legitimate aim, proportionality and necessity.

“The intrusion into WhatsApp accounts of individuals without their consent and any legal backing is unlawful, and violative of their privacy.”

The Wire’s investigations revealed that the Tek Fog app used the personal data of private citizens for targeted harassment. The app operators could access ‘inactive’ Whatsapp accounts added to the application’s contact list, and send targeted messages to frequently contacted accounts.

Further, the contact list is retrieved from the compromised account, which is then synced to a cloud-based political database in the app, and stored as potential targets in future disinformation, harassment or trolling campaigns.

The contacts stored in this database have been classified according to their information such as occupation, religion, language, age, gender and political inclination, among others, and accordingly subjected to partisan bias. They were then targeted, either by using the ‘auto-reply’ feature of the database, or by auto-generated abusive or derogatory keywords and phrases. The bias not only leads people to pre-emptively reject ideas that they are ideologically opposed to, but also to justify or overlook their own bad behaviour.

Intrusion into WhatsApp accounts of individuals, without their consent and any legal backing, is unlawful, and violative of their privacy.

Also read: New CERT-In directions raise grave concerns for data privacy

Technology and rights

Technology offers abundant opportunities for better administration of the country. However, applications such as Tek Fog are a direct attack on civil liberties, which are an individual’s most cherished rights.

Rights such as freedom of opinion and expression, freedom from discrimination, and the right to access information, form the basic tenets of a free society. Violation of these fundamental rights impacts democracy in India, and implies a transition to a populist authoritarian State.

It is crucial that the governing party realizes that free speech is the very essence of democracy, and that any further crackdown on these rights enables the denigration of the social fabric as well as constitutionalism.  But the Union Government appears to be content with taking note of the media reports on the app, and claiming naively that it has not found the app on online stores.  Clearly, the issue merits an effective probe to unearth the truth rather than issue of mere statements. 

The Leaflet