Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for December 2021

tl;dr

Since our last report for the month of November, IFF has filed 21 RTI requests and 5 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 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 December, we have filed 21 RTI requests and 5 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: 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 13 RTI requests and 2 first appeals 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). This month, we filed requests with:

  1. The Tamil Nadu Police Department regarding the use of a face recognition system by law enforcement.
  2. The Hyderabad Police on the use of facial recognition technology by the Hyderabad Police.

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 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.
  2. The Ministry of Home Affairs on linking Aadhaar numbers with death and birth registrations.
  3. The Ministry of Labour & Employment on linking the E-shram portal to the Unnati portal.
  4. The Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment on linking the E-shram portal to the Unnati portal.
  5. The Unique Identification Authority of India on the proposal of Aadhaar 2.0 in the ‘Ushering the Next Era of Digital Identity and Smart Governance’ workshop.
  6. The Ministry of Home Affairs on the proposed use of CMAPS.
  7. The Ministry of Home Affairs on the audits, complaints redressed and breached identified by CERT-in.
  8. The Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare on the responses received by them on the public consultation on IDEA.
  9. The National Informatics Centre on government websites developed and maintained by them.
  10. The Delhi Election Commission on the use of biometrics in municipal elections.
  11. The Chief Minister’s Office, Haryana, on GPS-enabled smartwatches for recording attendance and tracing their real-time location.

We also filed three First Appeals with :

  1. The NITI Aayog to obtain information regarding their approval to conduct a study on the use of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) in India.
  2. The Ministry of Home Affairs on the proposed use of CMAPS by the state police.
  3. The National Informatics Centre after they responded that they have no information about the developers and audits of the websites, which are generally developed through NIC or other agencies.

Significant responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. In response to our first appeal against the RTI reply, we received from NITI Aayog regarding their approval of a proposal to conduct a study on the use of Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) in India at a budget of Rs. 23.17 Lakhs, we have received the minutes of the meetings, which reveal that the proposal to conduct this study was presented to the ‘Senior Management Committee/Research Evaluation Committee for consultancy by nomination’ of the NITI Aayog.
  2. In response to our request for information from the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on the information regarding the number of websites managed by NIC and other details, NIC wrote to us that no information was available with them on this.
  3. In response to our RTI request with the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology over the disallowance of new users to sign up on the Right to Information portal, NIC wrote to us that they have “no material information is available in records of the answering officer”. Further, DoPT replied that the changes were made to “increase the response time” [sic] of the RTI portal.
  4. In response to our RTI request with the Tamil Nadu police on their use of FRT, TN police have replied stating that they are empowered by the Tamil Nadu District Police Act, 1859 and Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 to use the FRT systems and that no privacy assessment was made.
  5. In response to our RTI request with MHA seeking information on CMAPS, we received an incomplete response from the PIO. Then post our First Appeal, we received a response that no study or assessment has been for efficiency of use of Crime Analytics by Delhi Police.

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 8 RTI requests and two first appeals to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The Government of Nagaland on the reported recent internet shutdown from December 05, 2021.
  2. The National Informatics Centre on interface changes in the RTI portal, including dis-allowance for registration of new users.
  3. The Department of Electronics & Information Technology to seek anonymised, statistical information related to orders issued by the Union Government under S.69A of the IT Act, 2000.
  4. The Tamil Nadu Home Department on their compliance with the Anuradha Bhasin guidelines.
  5. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting on communications sent by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting publishers’ pursuant to requesting information under Rule 18(1) of the IT Rules 2021.

Apart from these, we have been pursuing information relating to the scope and scale of e-surveillance conducted by the Ministry of Home Affairs under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 since 2018. When sought for aggregated (and not detailed!) information in this regard, the Ministry of Home Affairs (‘MHA’) had originally claimed that such information was exempted under the RTI Act for reasons of national security, but on second appeal, the Central Information Commissioner (‘CIC’) said that the exemption did not apply. The first appellate authority was directed to hear the matter again, where MHA made a fresh claim that the information could not be provided because documents pertaining to the information were weeded out from time to time! We have raised this issue and sought for the information in second appeal before the CIC again. Alternatively, we have again sought to hold those in power accountable by filing requests for information for the period after 2018 before:

  1. The Ministry of Home Affairs on orders or directions issued by the Competent Authority under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  2. The Ministry of Home Affairs on requests received by the government from all agencies to issue orders or directions by the Competent Authority under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
  3. The Ministry of Home Affairs on approval requests received by the government from all agencies to issue orders or directions by the Competent Authority under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

We also filed two first appeals with:

  1. The Ministry of Home Affairs on no answer against our RTI request filed on 14/9/2021, even after the expiry of the statutory period of 30 days.
  2. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on no answer against our RTI request filed on 26/11/2021 even after the expiry of the statutory period of 30 days.

Significant responses received on our RTI applications:

  1. In response to our RTI request with the Government of Meghalaya, we received a copy of the internet shutdown orders from the authorities.
  2. In response to our RTI request with the Government of Maharashtra, we received a copy of the internet shutdown orders by the authorities on November 15, 2021.
  3. In response to our RTI request with the Government of Rajasthan, we received a copy of the internet shutdown orders by the authorities.

Important Documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for November 2021 dated December 07, 2021 (Link)

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