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

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tl;dr

Since our last report for the month of April, IFF has filed 32 RTI requests and 1 First Appeal. 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 May, we have up till now filed 32 RTI requests and 1 First Appeal 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 20 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. This month, we filed requests with:

  1. The Department of Health & Family Welfare on the news report titled, “Modi govt now plans a touchless vaccination process, with Aadhaar-based facial recognition”, published in the Print dated April 6, 2021.
  2. The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) on the use of artificial intelligence (AI)-based face recognition system for attendance monitoring by the NHAI. We have also received a reply from them.
  3. NLC India Limited on the use of Face Recognition Based Attendance Monitoring System by the Neyveli Lignite Corporation Limited.
  4. The National Thermal Power Corporation on the use of Face Recognition Based Attendance Monitoring System by the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited in Chhattisgarh.
  5. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre on their use of Face Recognition Technology System.
  6. Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers Limited on the procurement of Automatic Face Recognition System by the Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers Ltd., Department Of Defence Production.
  7. RailTel Corporation of India Ltd. on the tender granted by RailTel to Vehant Technologies in April, 2021 for the purpose of installation of advanced video surveillance systems across 100 railway stations in India.

For more information on these systems, visit IFF’s Project Panoptic.

Additionally, we also filed requests with:

  1. The Ministry of Labour & Employment on the recently notified Section 142 of the Social Security Code.
  2. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare on the MoU signed between the Ministry of Agriculture and Microsoft Inc. for post harvest management solutions.
  3. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology, the Department of Health & Family Welfare, the National Informatics Centre and the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) on the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol which was released by Order No. 2(10)/2020-CLeS dated 11.05.2020 by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. We have also received a reply from the NIC.
  4. The Ministry of Home Affairs on orders or directions issued by the Competent Authority under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and IT (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009.
  5. The Department of Health & Family Welfare on the Covid Vaccine Intelligence Network (CoWin) Application developed by the Union Government of India for effective management of Covid-19 vaccines distribution.
  6. The National Health Authority on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/020 dated April 19, 2021.
  7. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/018 dated April 8, 2021.
  8. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/017 dated March 31, 2021.
  9. The National Informatics Centre on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/013 dated March 5, 2021.
  10. The Department of Bio-Technology on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/012 dated March 1, 2021.

Further, on May 17, 2021, six of our second appeals before the CIC came up for hearing. The six appeals pertained to RTI requests asking for information about surveillance orders that the Ministry of Home Affairs had issued in 2018. After the CIC accepted our appeal, it observed that the MHA failed to justify reasons for denial. It also observed that our first appeal to the First Appellate Authority of the MHA was improperly rejected. It remanded the case back to them, and had directed them to re-adjudicate it by July 31, 2021. This is a positive outcome. IFF will consistently and incrementally be pushing for greater transparency and trust for interception and surveillance reforms. You can read more about the hearing and the CIC’s order here.

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 requests with:

  1. The Department of Telecommunications on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/026 dated May 22, 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 11 RTI requests to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The Department of Telecommunications on a news report titled, “Twitter removes over 50 posts on govt. orders, majority related to COVID-19”, published in The Hindu dated April 25, 2021.
  2. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology, the Department of Telecommunications and the Ministry of Home Affairs on a news report dated May 21, 2021 titled, “Centre Asks Twitter To Drop Manipulated Tag For Toolkit Tweets: Sources”, published on the NDTV website.
  3. The Health & Family Welfare Department, Govt. of NCT of Delhi on our legal notice bearing reference no. IFF/2021/029 dated June 3, 2021.
  4. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/028 dated May 22, 2021.
  5. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/22 dated May 5, 2021.
  6. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology and Department of Telecommunications on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/019 dated April 9, 2021.
  7. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/016 dated March 23, 2021.
  8. The Ministry of Home Affairs on our representation bearing reference no. IFF/2021/011 dated February 23, 2021.

We also filed 1 first appeal with:

  1. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology against their reply to our request on a news report titled, "Twitter removes over 50 posts on govt. orders, majority related to COVID-19", published in The Hindu dated April 25, 2021

Important documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for April, 2021 dated May 5, 2021 (link)
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