Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for August 2022

tl;dr

For the month of August 2022, IFF has filed 45 Right to Information (“RTI”) applications, 3 first appeals and appeared in 1 second appeal before the Central Information Commission.

Why should you care?

The RTI Act was enacted to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority by ensuring that citizens have 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 in keeping a check on abuse of power by the public authorities.

As we have discovered previously through responses received on our Right to Information applications several times, various government processes and programs continue with little or no transparency. This happens despite the mandate in the RTI Act, 2005 to publish and disclose information to citizens proactively.

The 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 extract information about various ongoing policies and projects that the Government launches.

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 protect the right to privacy. We filed 43 RTI applications with various authorities this month to ask for information pertaining to projects which affect the data privacy of Indian citizens.

This month, we filed RTI applications with:

  1. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) asking them for orders constituting and reconstituting the Empowered Groups in 2020 for COVID data and technology management. In previous responses, the Ministry has shared with us the minutes of meetings of the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management.
  2. The Central Board of Excise and Customs - Customs on mandatory PNR sharing of all passengers travelling on international flights.
  3. MeitY on the comprehensive legal framework for data protection as referred to by Shri Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister for Electronics, Information Technology and Communications.
  4. MeitY on reports of quarterly audits of compliance by social media firms by the Ministry. Earlier there were media reports on the proposed quarterly audits of social media firms.
  5. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis on the action taken on our joint letter to the Commission over surveillance of sanitation workers.
  6. MeitY on the significant social media intermediaries under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.
  7. The National Crime Records Bureau and Ministry of Home Affairs on the National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS).
  8. With the Chief Electoral Officers of Andhra Pradesh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Chhattisgarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, J&K and Ladakh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Lakshadweep, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, NCT of Delhi, Odisha, Puducherry, Punjab, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Tripura, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal on requirement of providing Aadhaar Numbers to Electoral Registration Officers, Booth Booth Level Officers or any other designated officer.

Apart from this, we also filed a first appeal with the Ministry of Rural Development over their incomplete response on NMMS application.

Significant responses received:

  1. In response to our RTI application with MeitY on the proposed fresh legislation to replace the Information Technology Act, 2000, MeitY responded that they do not have any information on this. Earlier, there were media reports that the Ministry was working on a legislation to ‘rein in deliberate misinformation’ which would replace the existing IT Act, 2000.
  2. In a significant response, MeitY has shared with us the minutes of meetings of the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management and the order constituting the empowered group.
  3. In significant responses (1, 2), Delhi Police has shared that they have used Facial Recognition Technology in over 750 cases relating to the North Delhi Riots. The response also mentioned that the system being used considers 80% or above as a positive result and those below below 80% are considered as false positive results and are subject to further evidential corroboration. Convict photographs and dossiers maintained by the Police under Sections 3 and 4 of the Identification of Prisoners Act, 1920 were used by the Delhi Police in conjunction with FRT. They also shared that FRT is being widely used by them for investigative purposes, especially in “heinous cases”, and in cases involving unidentified dead bodies or persons. Read the blogpost on the responses here.

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 applications 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 2 RTI applications to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with the Home Departments of Government of J&K and Manipur over the suspension of internet by them in August 2022.

Apart from this we also preferred 2 First Appeals with:

  1. MeitY on their response over blocking of the VideoLAN.org website. We filed an RTI with the Department of Telecommunications on June 07, 2022, which they transferred to MeitY which then replied "No information is available with MeitY". The website at www.videolan.org, however, continues to be unavailable in India.
  2. The Home Department, Government of J&K over their untenable response on our re-filed RTI application over white-listing of websites.

We had filed a similar RTI application with the Department of Home on November 12, 2020 seeking similar information on order numbers Home-03 [TSTS] of 2020, Home-04 [TSTS] of 2020, Home-05 [TSTS] of 2020 issued by the Home Department. Since no response was received to that RTI application, or the first appeal filed in relation thereto, the Appellant approached the Central Information Commission at New Delhi. In a hearing dated June 29, 2022, before Hon’ble Chief Information Commissioner Y. K. Sinha, the Ld. PIO submitted, as recorded in the order dated June 30, 2022, that “he shall furnish information from available records, if the Applicant chooses to re-file the RTI application, even electronically, through email”.

However, and despite the undertaking provided to the CIC, in the Impugned Response, the Ld. PIO has stated that "the queries posed in the RTI application do not fall within the definition of the "information" mentioned in the RTI Act, 2005. The information sought by you is in the nature of comments, and akin to creaton of information, which is not the mandate of the PIO."

Second appeals before the Central Information Commission

In August 2022, we also appeared before the Chief Information Commission in a second appeal matter relating to the public consultation on the non-personal data by the Expert Committee on Non-Personal Data Governance Framework. In her order, IC Vanaja N. Sarna recorded that “all the issues/points raised by the appellant in her submissions should be answered in detail and any denial of information should be appropriately justified as per the provisions of the RTI Act.”

Media mentions

  1. “Delhi Police’s facial recognition tech at 80% accuracy, stokes privacy concerns again!” in the Economic Times dated August 16, 2022. (link)
  2. “Delhi Police in RTI reply: 80% match in facial recognition is deemed positive ID” in The Indian Express dated August 17, 2022. (link)
  3. “The Low Threshold for Face Recognition in New Delhi” in The Wired dated August 21, 2022. (link)

Help us help you

In case you want us to file an RTI application on an issue in which June includes any active or proposed program, scheme or initiative of the government impacting the digital rights of citizens, you can fill out this blocksurvey form and we shall then file an RTI application with the concerned authorities. Alternatively, you can also write to us [email protected].

Important Documents

  1. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for July 2022 dated August 01, 2022. (link)
  2. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for June 2022 dated July 04, 2022. (link)
  3. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for May 2022 dated June 02, 2022. (link)

The post was drafted by Gyan P Tripathi, Policy Trainee, IFF, and reviewed by IFF staffer Anushka Jain.