Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for June 2022

For the month of June 2022, IFF has filed 21 Right to Information applications and 14 first appeals.

04 July, 2022
5 min read

tl;dr

For the month of June 2022, IFF has filed 21 Right to Information (“RTI”) applications and 14 first appeals. In a response to the RTI application on the current status of the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Sharing Protocol, 2020, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (‘MeitY’) responded that it had been discontinued since May 10, 2022. It also stated that the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management - which notified the protocol in May 2020 was dissolved in September 2020.

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 when it comes to 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 proactively publish and disclose information to citizens.

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 routinely 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 which will ensure that the right to privacy is protected. We filed 10 RTI applications with various authorities this month to ask for information pertaining to projects which affect the data privacy of Indian citizens.

Under IFF’s Project Panoptic, we routinely file RTI applications with various public authorities after we come across news reports that they are developing or using facial recognition technology (FRT). This month, we filed an application with the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited over their proposed use of facial recognition on the people using the metro services.

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 RTI applications with:

  1. The Chandigarh Municipal Corporation, Raipur Municipal Corporation, Ghaziabad Municipal Corporation, and Nagpur Municipal Corporation on the use of GPS-enabled surveillance watches on sanitation workers. We also sent a joint letter on the issue initiated by the All India Lawyers Association For Justice (AILAJ) to express our concerns over these ongoing violations to the National Commission for Safai Karamcharis.
  2. The National Informatics Centre and MeitY on the data already collected and currently being collected via Aarogya Setu app in absence of the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol, 2020.
  3. With MeitY and MoHFW on Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management (Empowered Group).

Significant responses received:

1. We received a response from an RTI application transferred to them from MeitY, stating that the Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol, 2020 has been discontinued and therefore, it refers to the Aarogya Setu Privacy Policy on several queries regarding user rights. The surprising part is that the privacy policy itself is anchored on the protocol itself!

Earlier, MeitY had partially responded to the same RTI application stating that the Empowered Group on Technology and Data Management - which notified the protocol in May 2020 was dissolved in September 2020. However, if the Group itself was dissolved in September 2020 - then it is unclear who was the competent authority which granted the extension of the protocol from May 10, 2021, to May 10, 2022.

2. In an RTI response, the Department of Home Economics, University of Delhi stated that they spent Rs. 17, 500/- on the procurement of a biometric attendance system with facial recognition without conducting any accuracy report or third-party assessment.

3. In an RTI response, we also received the file noting and other deliberations of the Committee on the Tamil Nadu Open Data Access Policy, 2022.

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

In the last month, we have filed 11 RTI applications and 14 first appeals to demand accountability for violations of free speech on the internet with:

  1. The Jammu and Kashmir Home Department (1, 2 and 3); West Bengal Home Department (1 and 2); Jharkhand Home Department and the Uttar Pradesh Home Department are on the internet shutdowns by them.
  2. With MeitY, Department of Telecommunications (‘DoT’) and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (‘BSNL’) over the arbitrary blocking of the VideoLAN website.
  3. With Jammu and Kashmir Home Department on the white-listing of certain websites during the 2020 shutdown in J&K.

We also filed 14 first appeals with:

  1. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Administration, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu Home Departments over their non-response to our RTI applications despite the expiry of statutory 30 days period.
  2. The Haryana and Uttarakhand Home Departments over their illegal and evasive responses to our RTI applications.

Significant responses received:

  1. In an RTI response, we have received the internet shutdown order from the Keonjhar district of Orissa which was not publicly available earlier.

IFF in the Central Information Commission

In June, 5 of our second appeals came up for hearing in the Central Information Commission. One of the appeals pertained to the public consultations invited by MeitY. This information was refused on the ground that the Ministry was not the custodian of any information relating to the internal functioning of the Committee. When the first appeal filed against this response was also rejected, we filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commission. The matter was heard on June 23, 2022, when the CIC directed MeitY to respond to the RTI application afresh after taking certain corrective steps. Read our blogpost for more details on the appeal.

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 May 2022 dated 02 June 2022 (link)
  2. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information Report for April 2022 dated 06 May 2022 (link)'
  3. Digital Transparency: A Right to Information report for March 2022 dated April 01, 2022. (link)

The post was drafted with the assistance of Gyan Tripathi, Policy Trainee at IFF and reviewed by IFF staffer Anushka Jain.

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