As expected, the pandemic-induced lockdowns resulted in increased internet usage which meant that the quantum of cyber-crimes has also increased. The number of registered cyber-crimes has increased more than five-fold since 2014 and crossed 50,000 for the first time in 2020. Cases of fraud accounted for more than 20% of these cases in 2020. The pendency of these cases at the police crossed 70% by the end of 2020.
COVID-19 induced lockdowns and precautionary movement restrictions forced people to stay indoors and switch to digital modes of communication for most tasks. During this period, be it for attending classes, doctor consultations, office work, ordering food, shopping, financial transactions, and entertainment, people turned to the internet more than ever before. Such increase in digital interactions & transactions is also visible in the significant increase in the number of internet broadband subscribers in the county.
According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the total number of broadband subscribers (both wireless & wireline) in the country went up from 67.34 crores as of 31 January 2020 to 68.37 crore as of 31 May 2020. By 31 July 2021, post the two waves of the pandemic, the total number of broadband subscribers had crossed 80 crores.
This rapid growth of internet users and digital transactions has also resulted in the increase of cyber-crimes. In this story, we look at the trend in cyber-crimes over the last few years.
More than 50,000 cases of cyber-crime were registered for the first time in 2020
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has been publishing the data related to cyber-crimes in its annual Crime in India (CII )report since 2002. The latest CII report for 2020 was released recently which puts the number of cases registered under cyber-crimes at more than 50,000. This is the first time that the number has crossed 50,000.
A total of 50,035 cases of registered cyber-crimes in 2020 is 11.8% more than the number in 2019. In fact, the trend in the number of registered cyber-crimes shows that there has been a significant increase in the number over the last few years. Compared to 2010, the number of registered cyber-crimes has gone up nearly 38 times. Compared to 2014, the number has increased by more than five-fold. However, the actual number of cybercrimes could be much more since many such crimes do not get reported, especially low-amount financial frauds, cyberstalking, etc. Only those cases registered with the police are reflected in the NCRB report.
As with the increase in the number of registered cases of cyber-crime, the rate of cyber-crime has also increased to reach 3.7 per lakh population in 2020, up from 3.3 in 2019. Prior to 2016, the rate of cyber-crime was negligible. In 2016, the crime rate was just one per lakh population. That is, only one person out of one lakh people had reported a cyber-crime.
Comprehensive reporting of data related to cyber-crimes began in 2017
As compared to other crimes, ‘cyber-crimes’ is a relatively new head in the NCRB’s CII report. Hence, there have been multiple changes made to this section in the past few years. The data on crime-head-wise case cyber-crime cases were made available in the report starting 2017. Detailed cyber-crime statistics under the crime heads of cyber terrorism, defamation, fake profiles and those cyber-crimes targeting women and children covered under the Information and Technology Act of 2000 have been reported since 2017. In addition to this, data related to online frauds, circulation of fake news and others are also included in the report since 2017.
Cyber-crimes are registered under the IT Act 2000, IPC & SLL
The IT Act of 2000 stipulates the provisions regarding cybercrimes and the relevant penal provisions. Computer-related offenses, cyber terrorism, abetment/attempt to commit offences, publication/transmission of obscene or sexually explicit content, and tampering with computer source documents fall under the IT Act, 2000. However, not all cyber-crimes are covered under IT Act. Crimes related to forgery, cheating, fake news, data theft, defamation, etc. are registered under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Offences under Special and Local Laws (SLL) include online gambling, online lotteries, among others.
Cases under IT Act constitute nearly 65% of total registered Cyber-crimes
On average, cases under the IT Act constitute 65% of the total registered cyber-crimes while those under IPC constitute the remaining around 35%. Between 2017 and 2020, the years for which comprehensive data is available, the total number of cyber-crimes under the IT Act, 2000 has more than doubled, from 13,635 in 2017 to 29,643 in 2020. During the same period, cyber-crimes under IPC have more than doubled, from 7,976 in 2017 to 20,201 in 2020. The cases under SLL are negligible and have increased from 185 in 2017 to 191 in 2020.
Computer-related offences account for three-fourth of the cases under the IT Act
The year-wise trend of cases registered under Crime-heads with at least 1000 cases between 2017 and 2020 is in the chart below. These 11 crime heads account for 98.5% of the cases registered under cyber-crimes in these four years. Computer-related offences contribute to the highest share of registered cyber crimes. Computer-related offences include ransomware-related offences, identity theft, violation of privacy, etc. In both 2017 and 2018, more than 10,000 cases were registered under this head and in the subsequent years, more than 20,000 cases were registered in each of the years 2019 and 2020. On average, about 75% of the cyber-crime cases registered under the IT Act were those of computer-related offenses. A total of 48.6% of the registered cyber-crimes in the last four years were computer-related offenses.
Contrary to the existing trend, the number of registered computer-related offenses decreased in 2020 to less than 22,000 cases which are 7% less than the number in 2019. On the other hand, the number of cases of fraud registered with the police more than tripled between 2018 and 2020.
The number of registered cases under the head ‘Publication/transmission of obscene/sexually explicit act in electronic form’ increased by more than three-fold between 2017 and 2020. The number of registered cases of cheating has more than doubled. Cases registered under ‘Cyberstalking and bullying of women and children’ witnessed an increase of 61%. Cases registered under forgery increased nearly 6 times though the number is small.
The number of cases registered for ‘fake news on social media’ increased by more than 3 times in four years and crossed 500 for the first time in 2020. Tampering computer source documents increased by 45% in the four years. Meanwhile, cases registered under cyber blackmail/threatening dropped slightly.
The remaining crime heads which contribute to less than 1.5% of the cases registered accounted for less than 100 registered cases each year including all the offences under SLL. Cases of data theft, and those under the ‘Trademarks Act’ and ‘Copy Rights Act’ have decreased whereas cases of cyber terrorism, online gambling, fake profiles, defamation, and counterfeiting have slightly increased.
The increase in the number of cases related to fraud, the transmission of obscene material, etc. could be a direct result of the lockdown & increased internet usage.
Poor disposal is resulting in increased pendency of cases
In the four years between 2017 and 2020, a total of 77,071 cases have been disposed of by the police while a total of 1,43,625 new cases were registered. The disposal was lowest in 2017 when less than 14,000 cases were disposed of. While the disposal rate has increased and close to 30,000 cases have been disposed of in 2020, the increase in the number of new cases has resulted in the increase of pendency. The disposal rate is less than the registration rate which means that the pendency of cases is only going up every year. As a result, the number of cases of cyber-crime pending at the end of a year has increased from 22,608 cases in 2017 to 74,142 cases in 2020, more than a three-fold increase in four years.
Pendency percentage is defined as the share of total cases that are pending investigation at the end of the year out of the total cases under investigation. The total number of cases under investigation includes cases carried forward from the previous year, new cases added in the current year and those cases which were re-opened for investigation. The pendency percentage has increased continuously in the four years- from 61.7% in 2017 to 65.1% in 2018 to 69% in 2019 and reached 71.3% in 2020.
The 2020 CII report indicates that the pendency was high for cases booked under ‘Identity theft’ under computer-related offences of the IT Act. Over 84% of the cases booked under ‘Identity Theft’ are pending. Under IPC, the pendency was as high as 90.9% for cases booked under ‘counterfeiting’ and ‘currency’, and 90.5% for ‘defamation/morphing’.
Timely disposal of Cyber-crimes is the need of the hour
As is evident from the data, the number of cyber-crimes has been increasing multi-fold over the years and this increasing trend is expected to continue as more people start using the internet. The pandemic-induced lockdown may also exacerbate the situation with people using the internet for several daily activities.
If the disposal rate does not increase and match the rate of registration of new crimes, the pendency is only going to go up. This may be possible only when the police force is equipped with the relevant skills and resources.