The Madras High Court has sent notices to Facebook, Google, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media and technology companies asking them to respond to a petition seeking to have Aadhaar and other government-issued identification documents linked with user accounts on their platforms in India. The order comes even as the Supreme Court is expected to deliver its judgement on the constitutionality of Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometric identification number for residents of India, this week.

In an affidavit filed in connection with the plea, the Chennai Police have claimed that the companies were not cooperating with investigating agencies in providing the information sought, despite the fact that it had a legal mandate to seek this information.

The public interest litigation was moved by a person called Antony Clement Rubin, who sought the linkage of government-issued identity documents like Aadhaar with user accounts on social media and email, and also a task force to monitor cyber crime.

The court had initially refused to entertain the plea since a case on the constitutionality of Aadhaar is pending before the Supreme Court. However, it sought a reply from the Chennai Police on the points raised by the petition.

In its reply, the Chennai Police said that it was dependent on social media companies to provide information on any cyber crime complaint that it received. To illustrate the extent of the problem, the police said that during 2016-2018, the Cyber Crime Cell of the Chennai City Police had sent about 1,940 requests to social media and technology companies, asking for Internet Protocol logs related to the social media and email platforms that they run. These are numbers that partially identify a computer that was used to post something on the internet. Among the police requests were 885 requests to Facebook, 101 to Twitter, 788 to Google (Gmail), 155 to YouTube and 11 requests to WhatApp.

But the police received a response for only 484 requisitions – 211 from Facebook, one from Twitter, 268 from Gmail and four from YouTube. No reply was received from WhatsApp. “It is necessary to state that remaining 1,456 IP [Internet Protocol] requisitions were rejected by social media companies,” the police said.

The police said companies like Google were refusing to share IP logs on some requests, by claiming that they had originated outside India. There were also problems getting information from internet service providers, as some of the Internet Protocol addresses were dynamic in nature, and the police would be able to act only if the port number issued to a particular user was obtained. This number uniquely identifies a network-based application on a computer.

The Chennai police said:

“It is submitted that in some cases where IP logs obtained from Facebook, Google, Youtube, the same are sent to various (ISP) Internet service providers for getting user details and the same remains unanswered and pending for long period without any positive response. Apart from the above said, few companies like Go-daddy, Beam Telecom, Saudi Telecom never responded to the IP user request made from this office.” 

Referring to the text of both the Information Technology Act, 2000, and the Information Technology Rules, the Madras High Court said the law made it clear that when required by a lawful order, the companies shall provide information or any such assistance to government agencies who are lawfully authorised to carry out investigative, protective and cyber security activity. The court said:

“On the facts and circumstances of this case, and in exercise of powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, we are of the prima facie view that the Information Technology Act, 2000 Act and rules made thereunder, have to be implemented, in letter and spirit and therefore, decide to enlarge the scope of the writ petition. Social media like, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Google from whom information is sought for investigation, Cyber Crime, Commissioner of Police, are required to be heard, as to why they should not be made as party respondents, to these writ petitions.”

The matter has been adjourned to September 24.