media, information, the contemporary

On Public Secrets, Forensics, and the Sting Fearing Virus

This is the third research note from Shaunak Sen, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

Credit: Hall of Female Secret IDs.

In his characterization of the ‘public secret’ Michael Taussig hints at the element of ‘active not seeing’ involved in the perpetuation of that which is generally known but cannot be spoken of [1]. Despite being consigned to a “shadow existence”, the public secret preserves itself and survives only by repeating itself ad infinitum as a/the secret [2]. As a powerful form of social knowledge and a structuring base to institutional power, secrecy survives as much on knowledge as it does on concealment. Corruption as many have pointed out, is a classic template for the ‘public secret’: that which insists on being commonly coded but cannot be enframed within official public narratives. The video sting short-circuits this logic – by hyper-playing the secretive act/gesture in loop ad nauseum across media platforms. The mundane act of corruption, otherwise part of one’s everyday, gets immediately recharged into an active moment of desecration. Institutions that aren’t routinely sacred suddenly get charged and re-sacralized when faced with the crisis of defacement. It is this ‘drama of revelation” that activates outrage (and subsequently the media event) at the face of the visualization of that which is Taussig calls the “secretly familiar” [3]. In the previous post I had revisited an inaugural moment of video transparency in India, and tried to sketch out a brief techno-material history of truth-construction over the previous decade. In this post, I look at large-scale intra government stings (stings carried out by vigilance departments on other government officers which go largely unreported by the media), forensic laboratory setups that validate sting videos as permissible evidence for the court-room, and finally segue into a broader philosophical question of what it means to disclose something (which will form the basis of the next two posts).

Bakasur vs the Spy-Cam / aka the Virus that Dies When You Move into the Light

Credit: OPEN Magazine.

Dilip Kumar, a 1987 batch IPS officer, served as the chief of the Anti-Corruption Branch between 2007-2009 ; and subsequently as the ex Joint Commissioner of Police, Vigilance in Delhi. Gupta is arguably one of the primary initiators of intra-government stings in India – he introduced the use of audio and video recordings to sting corrupt officials across a range of government departments. He was also an active member of a small core team that drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill, which the Anti Corruption movement in 2012 figureheaded by Anna Hazare sought to instate. Kumar also oversaw the setting up of the anti-corruption helplines introduced by erstwhile Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal (DIAL 1031) in Delhi. In 2013, he wrote a children’s fiction book called Bakasur – based on the mythological Hindu demon Bakasur known for his insatiable hunger, that came to stand as a metaphor for the corrupt. The story follows two young boys from Bhopal who come to Delhi and witness the effects the demon has wrought on the capital city. Recently retired, Gupta has tied up with several schools in Vishakhapatnam to initiate what he has christened the ‘anti-bakasur brigade’: a network of thousands of children who would be schooled not only against the ills of ‘virus of corruption’ but also trained in being able to undertake basic video/audio stings.

The following contains excerpts of an interview, wherein Kumar lays out a brief history of anti-corruption / transparency laws in India, the introduction of sting material as a prominent intra government tool for the Vigilance based agencies during his tenure, and the forensics infrastructure in the country that aid in whetting digital evidence sourced from stings before being produced in courts. The profile-based interview also gives a glimpse into an emergent attitude towards transparency in the previous decade, that culminated in different kinds of information activism strains both within and without the government.

The Sting Camera as Cure

Look, corruption is a virus. It is a disease. The corrupt are suffering from a sickness and the only cure is to make it visible, to bring it out in the open. We have to quarantine the afflicted people through social boycotts – making the virulence completely transparent is the only effective medicine we can administer [4]. The fight against this virus has been ongoing for years now. Unseen corruption had reached alarming levels by the time of the China war (1962) and the Government of India famously appointed a Committee under Sh.K.Santhanam, MP, for suggesting means to tackle it. In addition to various suggestions, the Committee recommended amendment to the definition of the expression ‘Public Servant” in Sec 21 of the Indian Penal Code so as to include Ministers and parliamentary secretaries. It was realized that the ambit of transparency had to be increased. The CBI also took shape in this exercise.

The 1980’s brought in a new kind of darkness within government affairs, and also the concept of “committed bureaucracy” – bureaucrats ‘committed’ to the Government and not to the Constitution emerged, dividing them into ‘my officer”, and “his officer”. The whole problem in the final decades of the previous century was that corruption was always a blind-spot – even honest officers knew it existed, how it worked and perpetuated itself, but it was impossible to give tangible evidence of it, to visibilise it. The Vohra Committee report and the Hawala commission showed just how bad it was, and if you look at the yardstick of the ratings of Transparency International, despite all the measures of our Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 the Berlin-based International NGO. Their Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of 1998 ranked India at 66 in the list of 85 countries. Tehelka’s Operation Westend (and NDTV’s expose in the high profile BMW case) was a path-breaking alternative for many of us! Exposing the corrupt was tantamount in this war and technology was the only way ahead.

The Early Use of Stings

We’d always heard of large-scale dealings that involved complicit officers/ministers etc, but since it was almost impossible to get hard evidence, convictions would be very rare. There would be some cases involving phone tapping but they would be few and far. I headed the Anti Corruption Bureau between 2007-2009. At first I removed all the different ranks of officers who would come between me and the complainant – I would meet them directly, unmediated by any other human or technological medium. We started using sting material. You wouldn’t believe it but we used devices brought by complainants – cell phones for audio recording etc, the department had nothing of its own! Different SIM cards and cell phones were all we were armed with. Some of the richer complainants started bringing their own more sophisticated devices like – button spycams, tie cameras etc. During my tenure we had 60-70 stings and with a high prosecution rate at that! Look, one had to be very careful. I made sure that there was no entrapment – no one kept a bag of money before an officer if it wasn’t solicited beforehand. The main way to nail them was the demand. See the officer doesn’t actually have to accept cash, or get caught in the action of taking the bribe, just the demand for it is enough to legally prosecute him or her. That’s all we needed on record.

We also had to be very careful against motivated/false cases – for which I started demanding a pre-sting. Only after a convincing recording about the demand etc. was available, traps were organized by us. These were very delicately and carefully scripted and directed. I know the ways in which a corrupt officer can try and wriggle out of a corruption allegation – “it was thrust upon me” is very common. So we would train the complainant for very long – what he would be careful not to say/what to say/how to sit/how to act etc, all in accordance to what would be required in court. We made some very high profile arrests. We caught a big licensing fraud network in the Transport Department, against an SHO of a major police station in South Delhi, against policemen in the Crime Against Women Cell, against a Crime Branch officer in Delhi Police and so on. We did a major, and very painstakingly put-together sting against a Deputy Commissioner of MCD who was demanding 2 crores from a businessman for de-sealing the latter’s premises even though the Supreme Court had issued de-sealing orders. Very often a single sting would bring into the light a wider web of 20 other individuals – the infected often get exposed in one fell swoop!

Credit: KRC Video Productions.

On Stings as Evidence

I often get asked this. There is no ambivalence about the admissibility of the evidence so collected! There never has been, even if you look at the history of magnetic media based evidence in India. The Apex Court in Ziyauddin Burhanuddin Bukhari v. Brijmohan Ramdas Mehta, AIR 1975 case clearly laid down that tape-recorded speeches were “documents as defined by Section 3 of the Evidence Act”, which stood on no different footing than photographs. In another case in 1986 (Ram Singh v. Col.Ram Singh, AIR 1986 SC 3) the court only suggested that all due measures need to be taken to ensure that the tapes haven’t been tampered with in any way, and the audio should be clear enough to determine that the voice can be matched with that of the accused. In every single case FSL opinion is sought to check on doctoring and voice identification. Its very important to get recordings to be transcribed very systematically as the makers of the transcripts can be used as corroborative witnesses. Which is not to say the FSL can’t be corrupt, some video/analysis labs are also very corrupt – we used to send it to 2-3 labs in order to ensure authenticity. (The Truthlab in Hyderabad is a popular lab these days for voice checking.) The courts are realizing that digital material is very very reliable – any tampering will always leave gaps, stutters or some kind of footprints behind so it’s completely intractable. Full transparency and technologies that provide us that are the way ahead.

On Bakasur

Yes I wrote a children’s book called Bakasur. Bakasur was a demon with insatiable hunger – no matter how much food you gave him, he would always demand more, plundering vandalizing everything around him. The story is around 2 young boys Pradeep and Ravi, who come from Bhopal to spend a holiday in Delhi. As they move around in Delhi their preconceived ideas about the city collapse entirely as they see the widespread corruption and amorality there. A lot of incidents in the book are directly taken from the many incidents I myself witnessed in all these years in different vigilance departments. Look AAP is based on two basic ideas – anti-corruption and decentralization. While I was interested in the former, Arvind (kejriwal) was interested in the latter and our interests came together during the Anna movement. (the two are not unrelated, for curbing corruption decentralization is a must, which is why transparency will be a searing political issue for many years to come now.) An ombudsman autonomous of the government is a must in stalling corruption – when you install anti-virus in your computer, Norton is independent of the software right? Only then can it protect the software. I’ve started an intitative called anti bakasur brigade in Vishakapatnam. Thousands of schoolchildren across various schools will join this – we’ll try and foster hatred against the pathological condition that corruption is.

Mengele’s skull
Mengele’s skull.
Credits: Small Worlds Project.

The only antidote to the aforementioned ‘virus’ for Gupta is exposure – the movement from darkness to light, from opacity to transparency. Clandestine registers of visuals and sounds become then the only manner of exterminating the malady. As the sting video simultaneously becomes the symptom, the X-ray test, and the medicament to the disease, forensics become the space to inscribe and enact the public secret as well as head in the direction of that putative “truth” that Walter Benjamin suggested was “not a matter of exposure of the secret, but a revelation that does justice to it” [5]. As the work of Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan suggests, the field of forensics itself has undergone something of a paradigm shift in the last few decades [6]. Various commentators have described the second half of the 20th century as the “era of the witness/era of testimony”. This epithet owed itself to the widespread public attention the era accorded to “testimonies, truth commissions, and interviews” [7]. Weizman and Keenan suggest that a radically new moment gets inaugurated around the internationally followed forensic investigation of Josef Mengele’s skull [8]. With the onslaught of various new technologies International Law increasingly became “more attuned to the communicative capacity of things, of things speaking… between themselves and to us” [9]. In their epistemic digging of the word Keenan and Weizman find that the word forensics comes from the latin word forensis which means forum, and refers to the practice of speaking on behalf of objects in front of a whole collection of people. The speaking objects in the forum are presented by an interpreter/translator who can ventriloquize for them and build an argument [10]. The interesting idea foregrounded here is that forensics is largely the presentation of an interpretation [11]:

Indeed, there is an arduous labor of truth-construction embodied in the notion of forensics, one that is conducted with all sorts of scientific, rhetorical, theatrical, and visual mechanisms. It is in the gestures, techniques, and turns of demonstration, whether poetic, dramatic, or narrative, that a forensic aesthetics can make things appear in the world.

A brief chat with a forensics technician Ashok nods at a similarly arduous process of interpretation that goes behind the authenticity checks that all digital evidence usually are mandated to go through forensically [12]:

Material from cell phones or audio-recorders are often low quality, i.e. the information they save is very low quality (be it resolution or audio wavelengths). The first step before commencing any test usually is ‘enhancement’. In videos it involves using filters to change brightness, contrast, crop and resize the image, sharpen edges, or often adjust the speed of playback to reach a frame rate wherein the actions are easier to follow and understand.
The next stage then is ‘authentication/detection’. In audio recordings, if the ambient noise changes suddenly, then it might be a change in recording environment, which in turn suggests tampering. Volume levels and sample tones also provide the distance dynamics in the place where the recording has taken place and is a sure-shot way of telling when tapes have been doctored. Cases often include taking the voice sample of people of the accused and matching it with those on tape. Full certainty is never achieved, one has to take a call based on the relative similarities in pitch, tonal quality etc. Similarly with video changes in lighting, spatial dimensions, breaks in the video can be caught by isolating and zooming in on one part of the frame (preferably a static object) and analyzing it through the duration of the video to catch unexplained changes. During the famous Watergate scandal, the investigators were looking into the mysterious 18 minute gap in the audio clip in which the then president Richard Nixon is heard discussing the ‘lapse’ with a senior staff member. On closely analyzing the tapes the investigators found that the ‘volume of the AC hum’ provided clues about where the conversation took place. It was a calculated hunch that worked brilliantly for the forensics expert there. This is largely detection work – one is given material and one has to take educated guesses based on the clues it gives.

As hoards of stings directed at different political factions break out with alarming speed today, the clamour for forensic validity becomes even shriller. Various stings in recent years have been later discovered to be disingenuous, and the number of journalistic stings that actually get presented as evidence in courts is disproportionally low to the number executed. Unlike the PIL, another transparency tool, the sting’s modus operandi has often been to performatively expand itself out as a media event. A large number of video stings involve well-known public figures/representatives of public institutions, and inhabit a kind of affective ecology where forensic sciences have to take on the burden of convincing not only scientists, government lawyers and courts but also the general public [13]. Weizman and Keenan argue that “Law and science have different methods for determining facts and act differently in relation to probability. And public opinion has its own relation to probability” [14]. Multiple players, from TV commentators, print-news stills, online videos, gif-s, blogs etc become some of the polymorphic sites on which different kinds of forensics get played out. Amidst these innumerable contesting voices, FSL labs often become the primary platform of ‘unmasking’ the ‘truth’ behind the sting.

Yet ‘Enhancement’ and ‘Detection’ both open up interesting questions that fly in the face of these beliefs. Enhancement procedures often leads to the implicit changing of the material at hand. Scaling in to magnify one particular hand gesture, changing the speed of an action etc can often have effects on how the material is read. The exercise of augmenting the clarity of the file can easily give a definitive slant to the semantics involved. In this curiously, forensics practice seem to echo practices of sting video editors in news channels who use filters, highlight a particular gesture with a red circle etc and keep looping it ad nauseum to increase the ‘effect’ of a sting (discussed in the previous post). The packaging and construction of a ‘truth image’ oddly resembles its postmortem dissection: forensics begets evidence as much as corroborating it. These techniques underscore the heavily interpretative nature of forensics. The process of bringing into light is fraught with unstable circuits wherein the material’s meaning is mutable from the moment of its outbreak right up to the forensics table.

This brings us headlong into an even more slippery broader question – what does it mean disclose something? In the next post I approach this question by examining citizen stings that have gone on to become veritable media events in the recent years.


[1] Taussig, M.T. 1999. Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative. Stanford University Press, Stanford, Calif. P.50.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, P.51.

[4] These interviews have been shortened and paraphrased. The material is sourced from a personal interview and a paper published by the interviewee. A detailed history of corruption related cases, statutes and laws can be found in the interviewee’s published articles.

[5] Walter Benjamin (2009), cited in Taussig [1].

[6] Keenan, Thomas, and Eyal Weizman. 2011. Mengele’s Skull. Cabinet. Issue 43. Forensics. Retrieved from

[7] Weizman, Eyal, and Tina Di Carlo. 2010. Dying to Speak: Forensic Spatiality. Log. 20. Fall. Retrieved from P.125.

[8] Josef Mengele, an officer in the concentration camp in Auschwitz was infamous for his selection of prisoners to be sent to gas chambers and for carrying out often fatal experiments on prisoners. Mengele fled after the war ended and hid anonymously for the rest of his life. In 1985, the police of Sao Paolo, Brazil claimed to have found a body that could belong to Joesph Mengele. In Weizman and Keenan’s account [6]:

Mengele was in a sense the last remaining Nazi war criminal of any significance, and his death would effectively put an end to the era of Holocaust trials and to the search for perpetrators—leading forensic analysts from several countries converged on the Medico-Legal Institute labs in São Paulo. Besides the Brazilian investigators, an official American team was dispatched, as well as a West German group, and Israeli officials were also present. The Weisenthal Center sent its own group, including the legendary Oklahoma-based forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, who after a career in the United States had just begun to train the Argentine students who would go on to become the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team), the world’s first professional war crimes exhumation team. The wide array of forensic evidence called for an equally diverse collection of experts: analysts of handwriting, fingerprints, dental records and X-rays, photographs, documents, and clothing were all involved in the investigation.

[9] See [6].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Name changed.

[13] See [6].

[14] Ibid.