The social network,in khaki

The social network,in khaki

At the Mumbai Police’s Social Media Lab,a first for any police force in the country,12 Special Branch officers trawl through social media and microblogging sites,looking for hints of trouble

At the Mumbai Police’s Social Media Lab,a first for any police force in the country,12 Special Branch officers trawl through social media and microblogging sites,looking for hints of trouble

In December 2012,as television sets beamed images of outrage from the streets of Delhi over the gang rape of a girl in a moving bus,one set of people watched closely: the Mumbai Police. The senior hierarchy,gathered in the Police Commissionerate,could see that the crowd was young,the emotions displayed were “real”,and,most importantly,the police couldn’t control the crowd. “That is when it struck us that we need to update our traditional models of intelligence gathering,” says Naval Bajaj,Additional Commissioner (Special Branch). “The crowd had first gathered on the social media. They came to the streets much later.”

It’s this event that led the Mumbai Police to create its Social Media Laboratory,a first for any police force in the country. Since its inauguration in March,the laboratory at the headquarters of the Mumbai Police Special Branch sees 12 officers on double shifts tracking “emotions” and “opinions” on social media websites,including Google+,YouTube,Twitter and Facebook.

“We just read what you talk (on social media),” says Bajaj,who heads this “new intelligence wing”.


An officer in the laboratory says his day begins with surfing for important news feeds and coding the reactions into positive,negative and neutral. On days the intelligence officers fear that a particular subject that is trending on a social media site could lead to public tension,the tweets are saved and revisited to track the number of times these have traveled and places where the information has reached. “It’s mostly about numbers. We look at information like a mathematician would,stripping its colour and engaging the matter through sheer numbers,” says a personnel from the unit.

Apart from traditional intelligence briefs,a new file now reaches the table of the Police Commissioner,revealing the day’s top five trends on social media. On crucial days,the file is updated every two hours.

Bajaj,the social media lab head,explains his job does not intrude upon people’s privacy. “This is where pure,unadulterated and fresh opinion is posted. Our job is to compress these emotions and give it to the police. For now,that is our only mandate,” he says.

The Delhi incident wasn’t their only motivation. The Mumbai Police also learnt the hard way from incidents that started on the Internet and spiralled out of control. In August 2012,ethnic tensions in Assam and Burma had found an echo through YouTube in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan,with the violence leaving two people dead,over 100 injured and the replacement of city police commissioner Arup Patnaik with Satyapal Singh. In November 2012,when two girls were arrested for posting a comment on Facebook after the death of Bal Thackeray,the police’s action had come in for criticism. A Facebook post sparked religious sentiments in Bhiwandi earlier this year,with a mob of 200 men blocking the Mumbai-Nashik Highway for over two hours.

Mob management is not new to the police and the “first input” of anger or protest is crucial. It is here that the laboratory plays a vital role. “We are looking for emotional matters that can have a bearing on public order,” says Sadanand Date,Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order). “We are taking baby steps. For now,we have estimated that 4 million Mumbaikars are on social media. Frankly,we haven’t even scratched the surface. For now,we are just mining information.”

World over,police departments are waking up to the potential of social media as a policing tool. The New York Police Department started its social data mining unit in 2011,following the London riots. The department has cracked some big rackets by “befriending” rogue elements through social networks and routinely looks for those who boast online after,say,a shooting episode. During the London riots,the city police used tools like geotagging to understand the geographical location of online troublemakers.

An industry expert who is assisting the Mumbai Police says officers are taught to use inbuilt search tools and filter “need based” information. “They are officers who have that knack,now it’s just about feeding the right queries in these search engines,” he says.

The project is supported by NASSCOM and is funded by Reliance Foundation. “There is this person who is very active on the Net on subjects concerning Mumbai,but he tweets mostly from outside. We keep track of a bunch of interesting people and understand their motive through their discourse,” says the officer.

Vijay Mukhi,a cyber security expert who is training the 12 personnel at the lab,says data mining goes through various levels. “Facebook figures indicate Indians are the third largest userbase. Also,we are among the top 10 Twitter users. It is a natural extension then to track debates,conversations and moods in these mediums,” he says. “We train officers on how to use open source intelligence tools like Maltego,which is a paid tool used by security forces around the world. Then there are concepts like which need to be used intelligently,” he says.

Mukhi uses his “live work-chart”,where he tracks over 150 influential Indians and their discussions,to train the officers. “The youth of the country are not reading the papers or watching the panel discussions on television. They are on the Internet—reading,forming opinions,tweeting,sharing. A tweet is open to the whole world even if you don’t know the person,” says Mukhi.

Mukhi’s recent class exposed the officers to a tweet that Abhishek Bachchan posted which was retweeted 38,000 times. “Imagine the power of the Internet,imagine,” he says.

In one of their first classes,the officers were told to plot a “hyper active” graph following the execution of Afzal Guru. The officers found that the anger had the potential to explode but soon simmered. “We are not there to analyse why it simmered. We were there to understand the anguish and the voices,” says an officer.

Mukhi’s monthly Twitter and Facebook summaries are used as “homework material”,with the officers trying to study “information waves” through data collected on IPL,words used by M S Dhoni,the nature of Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s tweets and the subjects that were retweeted,and the places from where Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s supporters come.

While for now the officers go through waves of retweets and summarise the mammoth quantity of Internet feed,they are hoping that they can build sufficient insight on how social networks are influencing personal views.


As an officer says,“We just want to know what makes you angry. Otherwise let’s just say we want to join your social party.”