Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for October 2021

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tl;dr

Since our last report for the month of September, IFF has filed 49 RTI requests. 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 to 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 October, we have filed 49 RTI requests 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: The number of RTI requests 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 that will ensure that the right to privacy is protected. We filed 16 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 Tamil Nadu Chief Minister’s Office regarding the use of a face recognition system by law enforcement launched on October 5, 2021.
  2. The Tamil Nadu State Government regarding the use of a face recognition system by law enforcement launched on October 5, 2021.
  3. The Tamil Nadu Police Department regarding the use of a face recognition system by law enforcement launched on October 5, 2021.
  4. The Government Medical College, Chandigarh regarding the installation of facial recognition technologies used by the college and hospital.
  5. The Srinagar Municipal Corporation regarding the use of facial recognition technology in Srinagar to track down terrorists.
  6. The Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR) on the protection of the personal data of students.
  7. The Jammu and Kashmir Police regarding the use of facial recognition technology in Srinagar to track down terrorists.
  8. The Jammu and Kashmir Home Department regarding the use of facial recognition technology in Srinagar to track down terrorists.
  9. The Government of Haryana on its proposed use of surveillance smartwatches.
  10. The NITI Aayog on its proposed study on facial recognition.

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 Soil & Land Use Survey Of India for the submissions received for public consultation on the India Digital Ecosystem of Agriculture (IDEA).
  2. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology on the proposal for amendments to the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  3. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology on the proposed constitution of Team 69A.
  4. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology on the report on the Facebook files’ related to India.
  5. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology on the status of the investigation on Cambridge Analytica.
  6. The National Informatics Center on the data on Aarogya Setu and status of the Data Sharing Protocol.

Significant responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. In the response received from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy on their use of facial recognition technology on employees and trainees, we found that there were no rules, policies, SOPs or guidelines which are being followed. We also found that no legal opinion was asked for & no cost-benefit analyses or feasibility studies took place.

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 that may hamper free speech on the internet such as website blocking or internet shutdowns.

In the last month, we have filed 33 RTI requests to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The District Administration of Ajmer over suspension of internet services on 26.09.2021.
  2. The District Administration of Jaipur over suspension of internet services on 26.09.2021.
  3. The District Administration of Kota over suspension of internet services on 26.09.2021.
  4. The District Administration of Udaipur over suspension of internet services on 26.09.2021.
  5. The Government of Rajasthan over suspension of internet services on 26.09.2021.
  6. The Government of Uttar Pradesh for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  7. The Administration of Andaman and Nicobar Islands for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the union territory.
  8. The Government of West Bengal for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  9. The Government of Uttarakhand for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  10. The Government of Tripura for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  11. The Government of Telangana for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  12. The Government of Tamil Nadu for its compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  13. The Government of Rajasthan for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  14. The Government of Puducherry for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the union territory.
  15. The Government of Odisha for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  16. The Government of Nagaland for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  17. The Government of Mizoram for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  18. The Government of Meghalaya for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  19. The Government of Manipur for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  20. The Government of Maharashtra for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  21. The Government of Madhya Pradesh for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  22. The Government of Kerala for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  23. The Administration of Jammu for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the union territory.
  24. The Government of Haryana for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  25. The Government of Gujarat for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  26. The Government of Goa for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  27. The Government of Delhi for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the National Capital Territory.
  28. The Administration of Daman for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the union territory.
  29. The Government of Chhattisgarh their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  30. The Government of Bihar for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  31. The Government of Assam for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  32. The Government of Arunachal Pradesh for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.
  33. The Government of Andhra Pradesh for their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines on internet shutdowns in the state.

Significant responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. The replies received from the Udaipur Divisional Commissioner revealed that the office has issued 26 internet shutdown orders, most of which are similar and have followed an identical copy-paste template - i) a bureaucrat recommends suspension of internet services citing ‘law and order’ concerns;  (ii) the Divisional Commissioner expresses their satisfaction with the recommendation without providing any reasons; and (iii) the Divisional Commissioner suspends internet services. The similarity between the orders indicates a non-application of mind on the part of the officers responsible.
  2. The replies received from other districts show that the orders which were issued on 25.09.2021 to suspend internet services on 26.09.2021 in various districts to conduct REET, noted that REET will lead to the movement of candidates throughout Rajasthan, and there is an apprehension of disruption of public safety due to fake news and false rumours that can be spread through social media. Interestingly, some of these orders also refer to “anti-social elements” spreading misinformation on the internet.

Media Mentions

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

  1. The Wire, in its article on the internet shutdowns in Rajasthan during exams, quoted IFF’s RTI work and our February 2021 report.
  2. IFF’s RTIs over the internet shutdown in Rajasthan was quoted in The Straits Times in their article ‘Frequent Internet shutdowns cause billions of dollars in losses to the Indian economy'.

Important Documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for September 2021 dated October 04, 2021 (Link)

The post was drafted with the assistance of Gyan Tripathi, a fourth-year law student from Symbiosis International, Pune, and reviewed by IFF staffer Anushka Jain.