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

Since our last report for the month of June, IFF has filed 29 RTI requests, 3 First Appeals and 3 Second Appeals. Here, we give you an overview of the requests filed and why demanding transparency and accountability from Government authorities is important.

03 August, 2021
6 min read

tl;dr

Since our last report for the month of June, IFF has filed 29 RTI requests, 3 First Appeals and 3 Second Appeals. Here, we give you an overview of the requests filed and 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 July, we have filed 29 RTI requests, 3 First Appeals and 3 Second Appeals electronically with authorities at the Central level, 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 21 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 Department of Electronics and Information Technology, Department of Military Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs on the alleged use of the Pegasus Spyware to intercept the mobile phones of over 300 prominent Indian citizens.
  2. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology to inquire into orders passed under the Information Technology Act, 2000 or the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 for the purpose of intercepting, monitoring or decrypting the mobile phone of a certain police officer, based on media reports.
  3. The Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways and the National Informatics Centre to gauge whether the upgraded automated number plate recognition (ANPR) technology that is being deployed in Tamil Nadu has FRT capabilities.
  4. The National Informatics Centre on the Pensioners Life Certification verification App that is purportedly being made mandatory for all beneficiaries of the Pension Scheme in Meghalaya.
  5. The Ministry of Railways on the proposal of installing over 900 video surveillance systems across different railway stations in India.
  6. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) on face authentication system that is being developed by UIDAI for identification purposes.
  7. The Ministry of Railways on the proposed intelligent sensor based systems that will be installed in the smart coaches of the Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani Express.

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 Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Women and Child Development on the protocols followed regarding the collection and protection of the personal data of students.
  2. The Department of Consumer Affairs on MoU signed between Central Warehousing Corporation, a CPSE under the Ministry of Consumer affairs, Food & Public Distribution and Star Agribazaar Technology Ltd.
  3. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority on the MoU signed between the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) and National Agricultural Cooperative Marketing Federation of India Ltd (NAFED) for harnessing the export potential of agricultural and processed food products of farmers cooperatives.
  4. The Delhi Police to enquire about the status of the investigations of the web application named “Sulli Deals”.
  5. The Delhi Police to enquire about their compliance with the directions issued by the Delhi Commission For Women and the National Commission for Women regarding the incident involving “Sulli Deals”.
  6. The Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited on alleged code injections that routes BSNL’s broadband users to phishing websites through apparently normal links on legitimate websites.
  7. The Delhi Commission For Women on the representation sent by Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 17, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/070.
  8. The National Commission For Women on the representation sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/071 on July 17, 2021.
  9. The National Health Authority on the representation sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 20, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/073.
  10. The National Health Authority on the representation sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation dated July 20, 2021 bearing the reference no. IFF/2021/074.

We also filed 3 first appeals with:

  1. The Central Board for Secondary Education against their reply to our request regarding information on whether any breach of their students’ data has taken place.
  2. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs against their reply to our request for information regarding the MoU signed between Central Warehousing Corporation, a CPSE under the Ministry of Consumer affairs, Food & Public Distribution and Star Agribazaar Technology Ltd and the data protection practices followed therein.
  3. The Indian Oil Corporation Limited against their reply to our request regarding the use of Face Recognition Biometric Attendance System at the Tirunelveli office of the Indian Oil Corporation Limited.

Additionally, we filed 1 Second appeal with:

  1. The Central Information Commission against the decision of First Appellate Authority of the Delhi Police regarding our request for information about the use of facial recognition technology.

On July 13, 2021 we received a response to our RTI request dated March 31, 2021 from the Airports Authority of India regarding the deployment of facial recognition technology (FRT) in various airports in India. It stated that it has incurred an expenditure of Rs 165.43 crores for installation of FRT systems in 4 airports, without specifically naming any.

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 3 requests with:

  1. The Department of Telecommunications and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India regarding Memo forwarded by the Department of Telecommunications dated June 25, 2021 to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) expressing their discomfort in implementing TRAI’s recommendations of establishing a Multi Stakeholder Body to enforce the Net Neutrality Principles.
  2. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India the representation sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/031 on June 13, 2021.

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 4 RTI requests to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology regarding the exemption granted to Apple Inc. for compliances under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.
  2. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology regarding plausible complaints received for blocking the web application named “Sulli Deals”.
  3. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology, the Department of Telecommunications regarding the purported increase in the legal demands for content takedown on Twitter as per its Transparency Report dated July 14, 2021.

We had also filed 2 Second Appeals with:

  1. The Central Information Commission against the decision of the First Appellate Authority of the Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited-Delhi Office regarding our request for information about website blocking orders between 2020 and 2021.
  2. The Central Information Commission against the decision of the First Appellate Authority of the Department of Telecommunications regarding our request for information about website blocking orders between 2020 and 2021.

Further, in our RTI requests on surveillance orders issued by the MHA, the CIC passed an order on May 17, 2021, directing the first appellate authority (FAA) to re-hear the case. Accordingly, the FAA conducted a hearing on June 24, 2021. The FAA was also directed to provide a copy of his decision by July 31, 2021 to the CIC, with a copy to us. However, we have not received any updates yet, either from the FAA or from the CIC.

Innovation

Every segment of our nation’s society and industry stand to benefit by being connected to an open Internet. Stringent permission based systems often deny Indians an opportunity to have unbiased access to the digital solutions.

In this regard, we closely follow new regulations that impact our digital entrepreneurs and this month we filed 1 RTI request with:

  1. The Ministry of Consumer Affairs requesting information on the representation sent by the Internet Freedom Foundation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/072 on July 20, 2021

Important documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for June, 2021 dated July 8, 2021 (link)

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