8 key privacy events in India of 2015

This post was originally published on Centre for Internet and Society’s website

As the year draws to a close, we are recording the key privacy related events in India that transpired in 2015. Much like the last few years, this year, too, was an eventful one in the context of privacy. While we did not witness, as one had hoped, any progress in the passage of a privacy law, the year saw significant developments with respect to the ongoing Aadhaar case. The statement by the Attorney General, India’s foremost law officer, that there is a lack of clarity over whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, and the Supreme Court’s regrettable failure to resolve the issue was a huge setback to the jurisprudence on privacy. However, the court has recognised a purpose limitation as applicable into the Aadhaar scheme, limiting the sharing of any information collected during the enrollment of residents in UID and setting aside the blanket permission the the enrollment forms which allowed sharing of data with any agencies for provision of services. A draft Encryption Policy was released and almost immediately withdrawn in the face of severe public backlash, and an updated Human DNA Profiling Bill was made available for comments. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much publicised pet project “Digital India” was in news throughout the year, and it also attracted its fair share of criticism in light of the lack of privacy safeguards it offered. Internationally, a lawsuit brought by Maximilian Schrems, an Austrian privacy activist, dealt a body blow to the 15 year old Safe Harbour Framework in place for data transfers between EU and USA. Below, we look at what were, according to us, the eight most important privacy events in India, in 2015.

1. August 11, 2015 order on Aadhaar not being compulsory

In 2012, a writ petition was filed by Judge K S Puttaswamy challenging the government’s policy in its attempt to enroll all residents of India in the UID project and linking the Aadhaar card with various government services. A number of other petitioners who filed cases against the Aadhaar scheme have also been linked with this petition and the court has been hearing them together. On September 11, 2015, the Supreme Court reiterated its position in earlier orders made on September 23, 2013 and March 24, 2014 stating that the Aadhaar card shall not be made compulsory for any government services. Building on its earlier position, the court passed the following orders:

  1. The government must give wide publicity in the media that it was not mandatory for a resident to obtain an Aadhaar card,
  2. The production of an Aadhaar card would not be a condition for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen,
  3. Aadhaar card would not be used for any purpose other than the PDS Scheme, for distribution of foodgrains and cooking fuel such as kerosene and for the LPG distribution scheme.
  4. The information about an individual obtained by the UIDAI while issuing an Aadhaar card shall not be used for any other purpose, save as above, except as may be directed by a Court for the purpose of criminal investigation.

Despite this being the fifth court order given by the Supreme Court stating that the Aadhaar card cannot be a mandatory requirement for access to government services or subsidies, repeated violations continue.

2. No Right to Privacy – Attorney General to SC

The Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi argued before the Supreme Court in the Aadhaar case that the Constitution of India did not provide for a fundamental Right to Privacy. He referred to the body of case in the Supreme Court dealing with this issue and made a reference to the 1954 case, MP Sharma v. Satish Chandra stating that there was “clear divergence of opinion” on the Right to Privacy and termed it as “a classic case of unclear position of law.” He also referred to the discussion on this matter in the Constitutional Assembly Debates and pointed to the fact the framers of the Constitution did not intend for this to be a fundamental right. He said the matter needed to be referred to a nine judge Constitution bench. This raises serious questions over the jurisprudence developed by the Supreme Court on the right to privacy over the last five decades. The matter is currently pending resolution by a larger bench which needs to be constituted by the Chief Justice of India.

3. Shreya Singhal judgment and Section 69A, IT Act

In the much celebrated judgment, Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, in March 2015, the Supreme Court struck down Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 as unconstitutional and laid down guidelines for online takedowns under the Internet intermediary rules. However, significantly, the court also upheld Section 69A and the blocking rules under this provision. It was held to be a narrowly-drawn provision with adequate safeguards. The rules prescribe a procedure for blocking which involves receipt of a blocking request, examination of the request by the Committee and a review committee which performs oversight functions. However, commentators have pointed to the opacity of the process in the rules under this provisions. While the rules mandate that a hearing is given to the originator of the content, this safeguard is widely disregarded. The judgment did not discuss Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 which deal with decrypting of electronic communication, however, the Department of Electronic and Information Technology brought up this issue subsequently, through a Draft Encryption Policy, discussed below.

4. Circulation and recall of Draft Encryption Policy

On October 19, 2015, the Department of Electronic and Information Technology (DeitY) released for public comment a draft National Encryption Policy. The draft received an immediate and severe backlash from commentators, and was withdrawn by September 22, 2015. The government blamed a junior official for the poor drafting of the document and noted that it had been released without a review by the Telecom Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad and other senior officials. The main areas of contention were a requirement that individuals store plain text versions of all encrypted communication for a period of 90 days, to be made available to law enforcement agencies on demand; the government’s right to prescribe key-strength, algorithms and ciphers; and only government-notified encryption products and vendors registered with the government being allowed to be used for encryption. The purport of the above was to limit the ways in which citizens could encrypt electronic communication, and to allow adequate access to law enforcement agencies. The requirement to keep all encrypted information in plain text format for a period of 90 days garnered particular criticism as it would allow for creation of a ‘honeypot’ of unencrypted data, which could attract theft and attacks. The withdrawal of the draft policy is not the final chapter in this almost farcical story, as the Telecom Minister has promised that the Department will come back with a revised policy. This attempt to put restrictions on use of encryption technologies is not only in line with a host of surveillance initiatives that have mushroomed in India in the last few years, but also finds resonance with a global trend which has seen various governments and law enforcement organisations argue against encryption.

5. Privacy concerns raised about Digital India

Since the inception of the Digital India campaign by the current government, there have been various concerns raised about the privacy issues posed by this project. The initiative includes over thirty Mission Mode Projects in various stages of implementation. All of these projects entail collection of vast quantities of personally identifiable information of the citizens. However, most of these initiatives do not have clearly laid down privacy policies. There is also a lack of properly articulated access control mechanisms and doubts over important issues such as data ownership owing to most projects involving public private partnership which involves private organisation collecting, processing and retaining large amounts of data. Ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US, over 100 hundred prominent US based academics released a statement raising concerns about “lack of safeguards about privacy of information, and thus its potential for abuse” in the Digital India project. It has been pointed out that the initiatives could enable a “cradle-to-grave digital identity that is unique, lifelong, and authenticable, and it plans to widely use the already mired in controversy Aadhaar program as the identification system.”

6. Issues with Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2015

The Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2015 envisions the creation of national and regional DNA databases comprising DNA profiles of the categories of persons specified in the Bill. The categories include offenders, suspects, missing persons, unknown deceased persons, volunteers and such other categories specified by the DNA Profiling Board which has oversight over these banks. The Bill grants wide discretionary powers to the Board to introduce new DNA indices and make DNA profiles available for new purposes it may deem fit. These, and the lack of proper safeguards surrounding issues like consent, retention and collection pose serious privacy risks if the Bill becomes a law. Significantly, there is no element of purpose limitation in the proposed law, which would allow the DNA samples to be re-used for unspecified purposes.

7. Impact of the Schrems ruling on India

In Schrems v. Data Protection Commissioner, the Court of Justice in European Union (CJEU) annulled the Commission Decision 2000/520 according to which US data protection rules were deemed sufficient to satisfy EU privacy rules enabling transfers of personal data from EU to US, otherwise known as the ‘Safe Harbour’ framework.The court ruled that mass surveillance being carried out by the PRISM programme goes beyond the proportionality and necessity principles under the Data Protection rules. This judgment could also have implications for the data processing industry in India. For a few years now, a framework similar to the Safe Harbour has been under discussion for transfer of data between India and EU. The lack of a privacy legislation has been among the significant hurdles in arriving at a framework. In the absence of a Safe Harbour framework, the companies in India rely on alternate mechanisms such as Binding Corporate Rules (BCR) or Model Contractual Clauses. These contracts impose the obligation on the data exporters and importers to ensure that ‘adequate level of data protection’ is provided. The Schrems judgement makes it clear that ‘adequate level of data protection’ entails a regime that is ‘essentially equivalent’ to that envisioned under Directive 95/46. What this means is that any new framework of protection between EU and other countries like US or India will necessarily have to meet this test of essential equivalence. The PRISM programme in the US and a host of surveillance programmes that have been initiated by the government in India in the last few years could pose problems in satisfying this test.

8. The definition of “unfair trade practices” in the Consumer Protection Bill, 2015

The Consumer Protection Bill, 2015, tabled in the Parliament towards the end of the monsoon session has introduced an expansive definition of the term “unfair trade practices.” The definition as per the Bill includes the disclosure “to any other person any personal information given in confidence by the consumer.” This clause exclude from the scope of unfair trade practices, disclosures under provisions of any law in force or in public interest. This provision could have significant impact on the personal data protection law in India. Currently, the only law governing data protection law are the Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information Rules, 2011 prescribed under Section 43A of the Information Technology Act, 2000. Under these rules, sensitive personal data or information is protected in that their disclosure requires prior permission from the data subject. For other kinds of personal information not categorized as sensitive personal data or information, the only recourse of data subjects in case to claim breach of the terms of privacy policy which constitutes a lawful contract. The Consumer Protection Bill, 2015, if enacted as law, could significantly expand the scope of protection available to data subjects. First, unlike the Section 43A rules, the provisions of the Bill would be applicable to physical as well as electronic collection of personal information. Second, disclosure to a third party of personal information other than sensitive personal data or information could also have similar ‘prior permission’ criteria under the Bill, if it can be shown that the information was shared by the consumer in confidence.

 

What we see above are events largely built around a few trends that we have been witnessing in the context of privacy in India, in particular and across the word, in general. Lack of privacy safeguards in initiatives like the Aadhaar project and Digital India is symptomatic of policies that are not comprehensive in their scope, and consequently fail to address key concerns. Dr Usha Ramanathan has called these policies “powerpoint based policies” which are implemented based on proposals which are superficial in their scope and do not give due regard to their impact on a host of issues. Second, the privacy concerns posed by the draft Encryption Policy and the Human DNA Profiling Bill point to the motive of surveillance that is in line with other projects introduced with the intent to protect and preserve national security. Third, the incidents that championed the cause of privacy like the Schrems judgment have largely been initiated by activists and civil society actors, and have typically entailed the involvement of the judiciary, often the single recourse of actors in the campaign for the protection of civil rights. It must be noted that jurisprudence on the right to privacy in India has not moved beyond the guidelines set forth by the Supreme Court in PUCL v. Union of India. However, new mass surveillance programmes and massive collection of personal data by both public and private parties through various schemes mandated a re-look at the standards laid down twenty years ago. The privacy issue pending resolution by a larger bench in the Aadhaar case affords an opportunity to revisit those principles in light of how surveillance has changed in the last two decades.

 

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