This spring, a group of schoolboys in Delhi played an obscene guessing game. In a group chat on Instagram, one boy shared a photo of a girl with the group, challenging the others to guess her age. The prize for a correct guess: her social media handle. “Bad dressing sense,” one boy commented. “ikr [I know right],” replied the original poster, “But good tits.”
One of the alleged victims of the group, which became known as the Bois Locker Room chat, was Madhuri, a 17-year-old girl in Bangalore who asked to be identified by a pseudonym. She told Rest of World that, in April, she received an unsolicited message from one of the boys requesting nude photographs. “I refused, but he kept on insisting,” she said. She showed Rest of World a screenshot of his response: “You motherfucker. Send me pictures of your breasts. How dare you say no to me?” The boy then superimposed Madhuri’s face onto a pornographic picture and sent it to her. She blocked him. But a month later, she realized he also shared the picture on the Bois Locker Room chat. She soon learned she was not the only one. The group had targeted multiple underage girls with photo manipulation. “It was disgusting,” she said. “One boy replied that he preferred bigger breasts. Another said he’d like to rape me.” What Madhuri didn’t do is go to the police. “They don’t take [sexual-harassment cases] very seriously,” Madhuri told me. “Besides, my parents would have felt bad about me going public. You know what it’s like for girls. We’d be blamed first.”
Yet Madhuri and the other victims would soon attain some measure of justice via unconventional means. She sent the screenshots to @shubhamsinghcybercop, an Instagram user who had quietly begun investigating the case. After recording her statement, he asked if she wished to submit a legal complaint; she declined.
The operator of the account is Shubham Singh, a 25-year-old wunderkind digital detective of sorts in Mumbai, some 1,400 kilometers away. He regards himself as a private investigator, gathering information to verify claims of online harassment and encouraging victims to pursue legal action. His vigilantism — what he calls “ethical hacking” — resides somewhere on the spectrum between the formal justice of the courts and the informal justice of the social-media tribunal. Despite his unorthodox methods, he has quickly become one of India’s most popular cybercrime experts, assisting Mumbai’s police in cases ranging from petty fraud to kidnapping, and even occasionally lending a hand to anti-terrorism efforts.
Several weeks after Madhuri’s exchange with the boy, screenshots from the Bois Locker Room were leaked onto social media after @ashnaaasharmaa, an Instagram influencer, shared a list of the boys’ handles and requested that her followers expose “[t]hese cunts.” The story revealed that most of the boys attended several prominent private schools in Saket, an affluent South Delhi suburb. The details were shocking: In the chat — which included roughly 30 boys, some as young as 15 — the boys rated the attractiveness of underage girls’ bodies and exchanged their personal information. Some even shared lewd tales of alleged sexual encounters with the girls. National media outlets swarmed over the story, as Indian social media erupted in outrage. As more screenshots from the chat emerged, the group members threatened to rape or leak nude photographs of the whistleblowers. One said: “I am going to Fuck every single [girl] who posted on their story” — a threat newspapers interpreted as rape.
But the Bois’ plans for revenge would be foiled, thanks in part to Singh. Over a Skype chai in late May, he told Rest of World that an influencer had tipped him off about the case by tagging him in an Instagram story and asking for his assistance in finding the boys. He said that soon after the story appeared, his inbox was flooded with screenshots from alleged victims. “On an average day, I get 10 to 20 messages,” he said, “but this time, I must have gotten over 200.” He had only a few blurred screenshots from the Bois’ chat that had gone viral — fearing public retaliation, members had deleted their Instagram accounts, seemingly eliminating any evidence. How, then, did he track them down? “Us ethical hackers, we have our techniques,” he grinned.
Singh explained that he first asked the girls who had approached him to send him screen recordings to confirm their stories. Next, he used a special tracking software to find their email addresses via their Instagram handles. After confirming those addresses, he searched Facebook for accounts registered under those emails and compared their Instagram pictures to those posted to their Facebook accounts. Once he confirmed the identities of the nine boys who were active participants in the leaked chats, Singh forwarded a WhatsApp message containing his findings to a police officer in New Delhi. He received no response. So he tracked down the boys’ parents and called them. “Since they were minors,” he said, “I wouldn’t speak to them directly. But their parents needed to know what their children were up to. I recommended that the boys seek counseling.”
Singh then shared the names of the nine boys on his own Instagram account. Their handles were also posted publicly by “Wall of Shame Real,” an anonymous Instagram page that names and shames alleged sexual offenders. Its administrator invited the page’s 35,000-plus followers to bring forward more screenshots and stories of harassment that could be used as evidence against the boys. “Their parents have been informed. Now, for the real action, you need to step up and help sir [Singh] in the case,” the post read. (The administrator of the Wall of Shame Real page did not return Rest of World’s request for comment.)
On May 6, the Hindustan Times reported that the Delhi police had apprehended an administrator of the group chat — the result of a social media furor fomented, in large part, by Singh. With their elite private-school pedigrees and social-media savvy, these boys seemed to alert India to a generation of young people doing whatever they wanted to whomever they chose to — as much online as elsewhere in the world. It is still unclear what the consequences will be for the boys of Bois Locker Room, though many have been questioned by the police in recent weeks.
Singh’s decision to share the boys’ Instagram handles, some of which revealed their full names, seemed to skirt an ethical line. But he insisted that their handles had already been shared publicly before his involvement in the matter. “I don’t believe in trial by social media. Instagram is not a courtroom. I always verify my claims before I post them,” he said. At the same time, he acknowledged: “Sometimes, to get justice, you need to do unethical things.”
The Bois Locker Room case struck a chord with Indians still convulsed with anger over the treatment of women in their country. In 2012, a fatal gang rape on a bus in Delhi enraged the country and spurred legal and judicial reforms. Yet the horror remains. According to the latest statistics, every day, 90 rapes are reported in India, but many more go unreported, due to fears and stigma. In the first three and a half months of 2018, more than five women were raped every day in the capital city. In February, a man allegedly raped a 5-year-old girl within the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Delhi.
Critics argue that the government has failed to address the heart of the problem: cultural notions of purity that lead third parties, particularly law enforcement, to blame the victim. A longtime police inspector with the Mumbai Crime Branch, who spoke to Rest of World on condition of anonymity, said that victims of sex crimes directly approach private investigators such as Singh out of convenience, not frustration. “If you lodge a claim, you will have to be questioned, have a character certificate taken … these things take a few days. People think going to the police is a waste of time — if I advertised free private help on Facebook, why wouldn’t people come to me? It’s just easier.”
The inspector disagreed that police fail to adequately protect sexual-harassment victims. “There may have been cases where officers behaved badly, but the government has now made lots of changes to help girls feel more comfortable approaching the police,” he said. “There are dedicated lady officers and help lines for sexual-harassment cases.”
The numbers would appear to back him up: Between 2012 and 2015, cases of rape reported to the police increased by 39%, perhaps suggesting victims have become more willing to come forward. But victims still claim law enforcement dissuades them from pressing charges. They often suffer humiliation at police stations and hospitals, according to a 2017 paper by Human Rights Watch. Even when police do cooperate with victims, the legal system often fails them. According to 2018 data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, only 27.2% of state prosecutions for rape in India led to a conviction. By contrast, the corresponding figure for 2017 to 2018 in the United Kingdom stood at 58%.
Rukmini Sen, a sociologist with the Ambedkar University Delhi, said India’s male-dominated police force still stigmatizes victims of sexual violence. “Time and again, various initiatives are announced … and clearly all of these attempts have either not been properly carried forward or have not created enough confidence in women,” she said.
The youngest of three brothers, the soft-spoken, bearded Singh is a born and bred bambaiyya, or resident of Mumbai. He’s spent his entire life in the middle-class suburbs of India’s most populous city. His Instagram account features him strolling around Mumbai, playing with the neighborhood dogs.
When he was 17, someone broke into his Facebook account, changed his password, and deleted the account. The incident sparked an interest in hacking. Later, he passed the grueling entrance exam to join the Indian Police Service, the nation’s flagship force. Joining the police had been a lifelong dream, he told Rest of World. But he was unable to join the service due to his studies and work.
Ethical hacking, however, offered him another shot at his dream. After completing courses on hacking and web development at IIT Bombay, in 2013 he became one of a number of civilian consultants for the Mumbai police, soon becoming a crack investigator. “At 1 a.m., 4 a.m., where other guys will have switched off their phones and gone to bed, Shubham will be available for work for us within the hour,” said the police inspector in Mumbai, who has been working with Singh since 2013. He estimated that some 200 people in his department use a digital course created by Singh to train police on topics like cyber forensics. On his Instagram page, Singh proudly displays a certificate of appreciation he received from the Mumbai Anti-Terrorism Squad.
Singh remains a civilian consultant for the cops. How do they feel about his unofficial work? “It’s not so different, really. Just off the record,” he said with a smile. Even the police “don’t necessarily follow every regulation,” he added. While that may be true, police are expected to follow procedures that will hold up in a court of law; private vigilantes, by contrast, have been known to dox minors, regardless of the real-world consequences or concerns over privacy.
“If I don’t take the risk, these victims might not get justice for two or three months. I only care if a victim is genuine,” Singh said. “Worrying about ethics in this situation is just impractical.” But it’s rarely so cut-and-dried in real life.
Eight days after the Bois Locker Room leak, an investigation by Delhi Police revealed that one of the most circulated screenshots allegedly from the group chat, detailing a supposed plan between two of the boys to gang rape a girl, was fake. With other screenshots, Singh claimed he could see obvious signs of tampering, such as evidence of editing or cropping or a faulty time stamp. This is why he prefers that anyone who sends him a complaint record their screens and scroll through the entire chat. “Videos,” he said, “are much harder to fake.”
Singh also feels strongly about the proliferation of unsubstantiated rumors across digital platforms — which, in India, have sometimes proven deadly. Last year, a rumor spread across WhatsApp accusing a group of men of being child kidnappers, eventually leading to their lynching; the rumor later turned out to be false. Singh also pointed to the case of Manav Singh, a 17-year-old boy in Gurgaon who, as the Bois Locker Room controversy unfolded, committed suicide after being accused of rape in an Instagram post that went viral. The veracity of the allegation, one way or another, has not been publicly determined. “I discourage people sharing their opinions online if they don’t have proof,” Singh said.
Yet without safeguards against digital malpractice, the same techniques Singh employs can also be used to target minority groups and undermine political opposition. As the #MeToo movement picked up steam in India in 2017, for example, a group of prominent Indian feminists expressed their dismay at online “name-and-shame” vigilantism, claiming that sidestepping due process, given its risks, could “delegitimize the long struggle against sexual harassment.”
Others believe that vigilantes like Singh fill an important gap. Daniel Trottier, a sociologist at Erasmus University Rotterdam and an expert in digital vigilantism, said that “hacktivism” has emerged as a result of an erosion of faith in law enforcement, coupled with an increase in online crimes as social media usage becomes more pervasive. “With long-tolerated forms of abuse such as sexual harassment, there has been a lack of success in pursuing a solution through the police. Shubham seeks to change that in a way that is potentially disruptive, but also effective,” he said.
I asked Madhuri, the young girl who experienced the Bois Locker Room firsthand, what men could do to create a social-media environment where girls would feel safe. “I don’t blame all men, but these boys have no one to tell them what’s right and wrong,” she said. “If someone had set them straight at the start, when they first started talking like this, they would have stopped.”
“Oh,” she added, “and we need more people like Singh, for sure. Much better than the police.”