Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for August, 2021

In the month of August, IFF has filed 64 RTI requests, 5 First Appeals and 1 Second Appeal. In this report, we give you an overview of the requests filed and an analysis of the responses we have received from the different public authorities.

06 September, 2021
9 min read

tl;dr

Since our last report for the month of July, IFF has filed 64 RTI requests, 5 First Appeals and 1 Second Appeal. Here, we give you an overview of the requests filed and an analysis of the responses we have received from the different public authorities. This report highlights why demanding transparency and accountability from Government authorities is one of the key elements in our fight to protect digital rights.

Why is transparency important?

The Right to Information Act, 2005 was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority by ensuring that citizens are able secure access to information under the control of public authorities. Facilitating such access is necessary to ensure that democratic processes are not subverted by public authorities acting under private interests. Where transparency is not upheld as a value of public decision-making, citizens are at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping a check on abuse of power by the public authorities.

The Right to Information (RTI) Act is thus one of the most important tools at the disposal of the public to engage with, and demand transparency and accountability from, the Government. We use the Act to routinely extract information about various ongoing policies and projects that the Government launches. In the month of August, we have filed  64 RTI requests, 5 First Appeals and 1 Second Appeal electronically with authorities at the Central level as well as through speed posts with relevant authorities at the States’ levels, concerning the various issues on which we engage with the Government.

Note: Number of RTIs are calculated from the date of the previous report. While we try to make this a monthly report, some RTI requests from the previous month that were filed after that month's report may be included in the present report.

Data Protection and Privacy

One of our key areas of work is ensuring that public authorities respect data privacy and engage in practices which will ensure that the right to privacy is protected. We filed 55 RTI requests with various authorities this month to ask for information pertaining to newly introduced projects which affect the data privacy of Indian citizens.

Under IFF’s Project Panoptic, we routinely file RTI requests with various public authorities after we come across news reports that they are developing or using facial recognition technology (FRT). We also enquire about the related surveillance technologies that the public authorities deploy. This month, we filed requests with:

  1. The University Grants Commission about the purported use of facial recognition technology for major entrance examinations such as JEE, NEET, UGC-NET.
  2. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi regarding the use of facial recognition technology for the purposes of ​​verification of candidates sitting for exams.
  3. The Department of Police, Assam Government regarding the deployment of IP based surveillance cameras by Assam Police Department.
  4. The Department of Home, Government of Jammu and Kashmir regarding use of the face recognition biometric attendance system.
  5. The Department of Transport, Delhi Government regarding a newly launched facial recognition enabled elearners license facility in Delhi.
  6. The Airports Authority of India pertaining to the use of facial recognition for boarding passengers in 6 airports across India.
  7. The Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies regarding the installation of facial recognition enabled biometric punching devices in the University.
  8. The Ministry of Women and Child Development, the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the Department of Home, Government of Uttar Pradesh about the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) as a part of the Safe City Project in Lucknow.

For more information on the use of facial recognition technology and how it increases mass surveillance, visit IFF’s Project Panoptic.

Additionally, we also filed requests with:

  1. The Delhi Commission For Women on the representation sent to the Delhi Commission for Women by Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 17, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/070.
  2. The National Health Authority on the representations sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 20, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/073.
  3. The National Health Authority on the representations sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 20, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/074.
  4. The Lok Sabha Secretariat on the representations sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 10, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/037.
  5. The Reserve Bank of India regarding the introduction of the proposed central bank digital currency in India.
  6. The Reserve Bank of India and the Department of Financial Services regarding the launch of the eRUPI project by the Prime Minister of India.
  7. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare pertaining to the IDEA Consultation paper released by the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers Welfare on June 1, 2021.
  8. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited on complaints related to the insertion of browser injections or code injections in the internet services provided to their users.
  9. The Department of Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs, Punjab Government and the Punjab Mandi Board about use of digital platforms for the purpose of farmland record integration for paddy procurement for farmers in Punjab.
  10. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology regarding the latest notification about extension of the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol, 2020.
  11. 32 states and union territories of India regarding the safeguards in place pertaining to the personal information of the students enrolled in different schools across the respective states and union territories.
  12. The Electronics and Information Communication Department, Government of Telangana regarding the use of Drones and Geographic Information Systems in farming.

We also filed 2 first appeals with:

  1. The Department of School Education and Literacy against the incomplete reply of the CPIO to our RTI application seeking information ​​regarding the categories of personal data of the students that are usually collected by various affiliation boards across all Indian states.
  2. The Reserve Bank of India against the response of the CPIO to our RTI application seeking further information on the proposed central banks digital currency, wherein the CPIO refused to grant the information sought without citing any reasonable grounds.

Significant Responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. On August 27, 2021, we received a response from the National Commission of Women (NCW) to our RTI application seeking information regarding the progress made by the Delhi Police in its investigation of the “Sulli Deals” incident wherein an eponymous app hosted on GitHub, held an online auction of muslim women. The NCW had already issued directions to the Delhi Police to expedite investigations and provide reports of the actions taken by July 18, 2021. In its response, NCW shared copies of its correspondences with the Delhi Police wherein it was divulged that the Delhi Police had submitted an interim action report on July 16, 2021, stating that an FIR was registered under section 354 A of the Indian Penal Code and the investigations were underway. The NCW followed up on this response on July 22, 2021, urging the Delhi Police to expedite the investigation and provide an updated progress report within 10 days from the date of issuing the letter. Subsequently, the Commission also issued summons to the Delhi Police for a virtual hearing on August 13, 2021. No further documents were provided to us hence we do not have updates about the hearing or any revised action taken report of the Delhi Police. However, it was encouraging to note that NCW has been proactively following up with the Delhi Police to enable the victims of this gut-wrenching act to get justice. It has been two months since the incident took place and we hope that the Delhi Police responds to the situation with greater efficiency and promptness and facilitates access to vital information regarding the case beyond the perfunctory “investigation of the case is in progress”.
  2. Interestingly, Delhi Police too responded to our RTI application wherein we had sought information regarding the status of the investigation in the “Sulli Deals” incident. Here, the Delhi Police refused to grant us the information sought citing exemptions under section 8 of the RTI Act, 2005.
  3. We were happy to receive the response of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights to our RTI application seeking information on the protocol of collecting, sharing and storing personal information of students enrolled in schools across India. Herein the Commission stated that personal information of the students must not be disclosed by the schools to any third party. Further, the Commission provided us with copies of the guidelines issued by it regarding the online safety of children attending virtual classes during the Covid-19 lockdown.
  4. In July, we had filed an RTI application with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology seeking information regarding the reported leak of personal data of eminent citizens of India using the ‘Pegasus Spyware’. The Ministry recently responded to us stating that it does not pass any interception order under section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

Net Neutrality

Through the SaveTheInternet campaign, we were able to secure a massive public victory for net neutrality in India. This resulted in legal rules which now require internet service providers and telecoms companies to treat all data equally. Protecting net neutrality in India is one of our most important campaigns. For this, we filed 2 requests with:

  1. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited seeking information regarding user complaints of being routed to phishing websites even after clicking on regular links on legitimate websites on BSNL broadband connections.
  2. The Home Department, Government of Meghalaya seeking information regarding the order of suspension of telecom services which took place on August 15, 2021 in four districts of Meghalaya.

We also filed 1 First Appeal with:

  1. The Department of Telecommunications citing the lack of response from the concerned CPIO pertaining to our RTI application seeking information regarding the communication sent by it to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on the latter’s recommendations on enforcing net neutrality principles.

Significant Responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. Last month we had filed an RTI application with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), seeking information on its communication with the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) regarding the Recommendations provided by TRAI to DoT on enforcing the net neutrality principles. TRAI has responded to our application by providing the relevant links to the recommendations sent by it to DoT and forwarded our query to DoT for them to provide us with relevant communications sent by them to TRAI. We are still awaiting response from DoT.

Free Speech and Censorship

Another focus of our work is to ensure that freedom of speech and expression on the internet is protected and that unnecessary censorship does not lead to a chilling effect on people’s fundamental rights. For this, we routinely file RTI requests to demand accountability for instances which may hamper free speech on the internet such as website blocking or internet shutdowns.

In the last month, we have filed 7 RTI requests to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The Department of Home, Government of Madhya Pradesh regarding a recent circular authorising the home secretary to issue notices to social media companies against unlawful content.
  2. The Delhi and the Mumbai offices of the Mahanagar Telecom Nigam Limited regarding the purported denial of access to the website www.covid19india.org to the MTNL users.
  3. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, the Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Home Affairs about the purported blocking of the Facebook page called “NoVoteto BJP” on Facebook.
  4. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology regarding the proposed centralised approach being taken by the Union Government regarding the regulation of ‘online gambling.

We had also filed 2 First Appeals with:

  1. The Mahanagar Telecom Nigam Limited against the decision of its CPIO to our RTI application seeking information regarding the purported blocking of the website www.covid19india.org for MTNL users, wherein the CPIO refused to provide the information sought citing exemptions under section 8 of the RTI Act, 2005.
  2. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology against the decision of its CPIO to actor Sushant Singh’s RTI application whereby he sought information regarding the grounds on which his Twitter account was blocked by Twitter in February, 2021 and May 2021, respectively.

We had also filed 1 Second Appeal with:

  1. The Central Information Commission in Apar Gupta v. CPIO, Ministry of Home Affairs and Ors. against the revised decision of the First Appellate Authority of the Ministry regarding our RTI request for information on surveillance orders passed by the government. On August 3, 2021, the First Appellate Authority passed a revised order yet again denying the information sought stating that it no longer was in possession of the data sought since, pursuant Rule 23 of the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009, it destroys all records every six months.

Significant Responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. In response to our RTI application regarding the purported centralised legislation of online gaming, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology stated that “The Information Technology(Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code)Rules, 2021 does not have any specific provisions that explicitly forbids real money gaming.”

Media Mentions

Our advocacy for wider access to information by the public has been acknowledged by different media reports on several occasions.

  1. Highlighting the need for transparency in cases of blocking of social media accounts, on September 1, 2021 the India Times covered our RTI applications in actor Sushant Singh’s case and the subsequent reluctance of the government to disclose information regarding the orders passed.
  2. On August 11, 2021, Medianama highlighted our RTI application filed in May, 2021 with the Government of Chhattisgarh seeking information on the legalities, SOPs, and cost, risk-benefit analysis of using Facial Recognition Technology by the National Thermal Power Corporation, Chattisgarh
  3. On August 9, 2021, FossBytes covered our efforts through repeated RTI Applications to uncover more information regarding BSNL’s alleged code injections into the browsers of the users.
  4. In the first week of August, the Economic Times and the Firstpost covered the response received from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to our RTI application regarding the purported order to remove the “manipulated media tag” to Twitter.

Important Documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for July, 2021 dated August 03, 2021 (Link)

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