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

tl;dr

Since our last report for the month of August, IFF has filed 26 RTI requests and 3 First Appeals. 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 September, we have filed  26 RTI requests and 3 First Appeals 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 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 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 (FRT). We also enquire about the related surveillance technologies that the public authorities deploy. This month, we filed requests with:

  1. The Kerala State Road Transport regarding the installation of a face recognition attendance system for the employees of the Kerala State Road Transport.
  2. The Government of Assam regarding the installation of AI based facial recognition attendance system across 48000 government schools in Assam.
  3. The Chittoor District Police regarding the use of Face Recognition based smartphone application for the purpose of identifying habitual offenders.
  4. The Uttarakhand Police regarding the use of facial recognition technology by the Special Task Force, Uttarakhand Police.
  5. The Telangana State Council for Higher Education regarding the use of Face Recognition Biometric Attendance System by the Telangana State Council For Higher Education.
  6. The Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy regarding the use of Face Recognition Biometric Attendance System by the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy.
  7. The Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority regarding the use of facial recognition systems by the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority.
  8. The Punjab Artificial Intelligence System regarding the deployment of face recognition for the purpose of identification of criminals.
  9. The Airports Authority of India regarding the contract between NEC Corporation and Airports Authority of India for the deployment of Face Recognition System in Varanasi, Vijayawada, Pune and Kolkata airports.

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 Government of Telangana regarding the use of drones to supply vaccines across different parts of the state as a part of the ‘Medicine from Sky’ project.
  2. The Department of Higher Education and the Department of School Education and Literacy regarding the implementation of the Common Database of Research Scholars in IITs.
  3. The Ministry of Home Affairs regarding the constitution of a High-Powered Committee to supervise the guidelines relating to Proclaimed Person/Offenders as laid down by the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi in Sunil Tyagi vs Govt of NCT of Delhi, CRL.M.C. 5238/2013.
  4. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare regarding the MoUs signed between Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers welfare and CISCO, Ninjacart, Jio Platforms Limited, ITC Limited and NCDEX e-Markets Limited (NeML) for the stated purpose of infusing new technologies in agriculture to increase the income of the farmers.
  5. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology regarding the new Responsible Vulnerability Disclosure and Coordination Policy of CERT-In, released on September 3rd, 2021.
  6. The Ministry of Home Affairs regarding the budgetary allocations and budgetary expenditure with regards to the National Intelligence Grid proposed to be released soon.
  7. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology regarding the MoU signed between Amazon Web Services and the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
  8. The Department of School Education and Literacy regarding the release of the Vision statement of NDEAR released by this Ministry.
  9. The Government of Kerala regarding the report of the probe committee headed by Justice K Shasidharan Nair on the  issue of engaging Sprinklr Inc. for the data analysis of Covid-19 numbers in the state of Kerala.
  10. The Government of Kerala regarding the enforcement of the Kerala Control of  Organised Crimes Act which permits the police to surveil citizens without prior approval from concerned authority.

We also filed 2 First Appeals with :

  1. The Ministry of Railways regarding the CPIO’s reply to our RTI application seeking information on the agreement entered between Indian Railways and RailTel Corporation regarding the installation of surveillance cameras at 983 stations across the country. The CPIO, in his reply, has merely provided us with a link to the agreement without engaging with any other vital information asked for. In our appeal, we highlighted that the CPIO pursuant section 6 (3) of the RTI Act, 2005 must transfer the queries to the relevant departments if the answers to the same aren’t available with his office.
  2. The National Testing Agency against the CPIO’s reply, refusing to provide us with the information sought regarding the use of facial recognition systems in Major Entrance Examinations Such As JEE, NEET, UGC-NET, relying on section 8(1)(d) and (e) of the RTI Act, 2005. We highlighted that knowledge about who has access to the data collected through the facial recognition system has overwhelming public interest since it jeopardizes the Right to Privacy of the candidates of these examinations. Therefore, the exemptions under the cited provisions do not hold ground and the information sought must be furnished.

Significant responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. On September 3, 2021 we had filed an application with the Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Education seeking information regarding the legal basis of operationalising the Common Database of Research Scholars in IITs. This RTI application was transferred to the concerned authorities at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)s, pursuant section 6(3) of the RTI Act, 2005. We received a response from the IIT, Kanpur wherein an exhaustive list of the categories of information collected has been provided to us. These include personal details like name, nationality, contact information, address as well as academic details like phD registration number, applicable central scheme, department of study etc. While we appreciate the prompt disposal of the RTI application, we regret to note that the information regarding several other pressing issues like the legal basis of the creating such a database, the privacy concerns of the data collection and storage practices etc. have not been provided to us.
  2. On August 17, 2021, we had filed a RTI application with the Legislative Department of the Government of India enquiring about its plans to link voter ID cards of the citizens with Aadhaar cards. On September 22, 2021 we received a response from the the Election Commission of India that pursuant the ‘National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programmed’, the Commission has requested the Ministry of Law and Justice to duly amend the Aadhaar Act, 2016 to facilitate the linking of Voter ID cards with Aadhaar. We received a subsequent response from the Ministry of Law and Justice which endorsed the proposition of the Commission by (incorrectly) stating that such a step passed the proportionality tests laid down by the Supreme Court of India.

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. In the month of September, we received an important response from the Department of Telecommunications.

  1. We had filed an RTI application with the Department of Telecommunications seeking information regarding the progress made by the department in establishing a multi-stakeholder body to enforce net neutrality principles, as per the recommendations by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. In response to our RTI application, the department relied on the fiscal austerity measures being practiced by the department due to the Covid-19 pandemic to delay the formation of the multi-stakeholder body.

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

  1. The Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity regarding the expenditure incurred by the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity on government advertisements to different newspapers and media houses.
  2. The Home Secretary, Government of Rajasthan, Divisional Commissioner, Jaipur, Divisional Commissioner, Udaipur, District Collectorate, Ajmer and Divisional Commissioner, Kota regarding the internet suspensions in Rajasthan in the month of September, 2021.

We had also filed 1 First Appeal with:

  1. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology against the reply of the CPIO refusing to divulge details regarding the legal orders passed by the Ministry to Twitter for removal of content, as per Twitter’s Transparency Report for July, 2021. The CPIO merely stated that the information sought is not available with the Ministry. Accordingly, we urged the Appellate Authority to ensure that the enquiries are transferred to the relevant authorities pursuant to section 6(3) of the RTI Act.

Significant responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. In July we had filed an RTI application with the Department of Electronics and Information Technology enquiring whether the Ministry had written to Apple seeking compliance under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 and later withdrawn it, as per media reports. However, in its response, the CPIO denied any such report and stated that the Ministry has not corresponded with Apple.

Media Mentions

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

  1. In Unbias the News,  IFF’s Associate Counsel (Transparency and Surveillance), Anushka Jain was quoted regarding the strategic information that IFF was able to obtain to successive RTI applications regarding the National Automated Facial Recognition System.
  2. The Hindu, in its article titled, ‘The surveillance trap’, dated September 20, 2021 referred to the data unraveled by RTI application filed under IFF’s Project Panoptic regarding the legality of the use of facial recognition technology by the Delhi Police and quoted IFF’s Associate Counsel ( Transparency and Surveillance), Anushka Jain.

Important Documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for August, 2021 dated September 06, 2021 (Link)