Spreading unhappiness equally around

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Jul 31, 2018 02:49 PM |
The section of civil society opposed to Aadhaar is unhappy because the UIDAI and all other state agencies that wish to can process data non-consensually.

The article was published in Business Standard on July 31, 2018.


There is a joke in policy-making circles — you know you have reached a good compromise if all the relevant stakeholders are equally unhappy. By that measure, the B N Srikrishna committee has done a commendable job since there are many with complaints.

Some in the private sector are unhappy because their demonisation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has failed. The committee’s draft data protection Bill is closely modelled upon the GDPR in terms of rights, principles, design of the regulator and the design of the regulatory tools like impact assessments. With 4 per cent of global turnover as maximum fine, there is a clear signal that privacy infringements by transnational corporations will be reigned in by the regulator. Getting a law that has copied many elements of the European regulation is good news for us because the GDPR is recognised by leading human rights organisations as the global gold standard. But the bad news for us is that the Bill also has unnecessarily broad data localisation mandates for the private sector.

Some in the fintech sector are unhappy because the committee rejected the suggestion that privacy be regulated as a property right. This is a positive from the human rights perspective, especially because this approach has been rejected across the globe, including the European Union. Property rights are inappropriate because a natural law framing of the enclosure of the commons into private property through labour does not translate to personal data. Also in comparison to patents — or “intellectual property” — the scale of possible discreet property holdings in personal information is several orders higher, posing unimaginable complexity for regulation, possibly creating a gridlock economy.

The section of civil society opposed to Aadhaar is unhappy because the UIDAI and all other state agencies that wish to can process data non-consensually. A similar loophole exists in the GDPR. Remember the definition of processing includes “operations such as collection, recording, organisation, structuring, storage, adaptation, alteration, retrieval, use, alignment or combination, indexing, disclosure by transmission, dissemination or otherwise making available, restriction, erasure or destruction”. This means the UIDAI can collect data from you without your consent and does not have to establish consent for the data it has collected in the past. There is a “necessary” test which is supposed to constrain data collection. But for the last 10 odd years, the UIDAI has deemed it “necessary” to collect biometrics to give the poor subsidised grain. Will those forms of disproportionate non-consensual data collection continue? Most probably because the report recommends that the UIDAI continue to play the role of the regulator with heightened powers. Which is like trusting the fox with
the henhouse.

Employees should be unhappy because the Bill has an expansive ground under which employers can nonconsensually harvest their data. The Bill allows for non-consensual processing of any data “necessary” for recruitment, termination, providing any benefit or service, verifying the attendance or any other activity related to the assessment of the performance”. This is permitted when consent is not an appropriate basis or would involve disproportionate effort on the part of the employer. This is basically a surveillance provision for employers. Either this ground should be removed like in the GDPR or a “proportionate” test should also be introduced otherwise disproportionate mechanisms like spyware on work computers will be installed by employees without providing notice.

Some free speech activists are unhappy because the law contains a “right to be forgotten” provision. They are concerned that this will be used by the rich and powerful to censor mainstream and alternative media. On the face of the “right to be forgotten” in the GDPR is a much more expansive “right to erasure”, whilst the Bill only provides for a more limited "right to restrict or prevent continuing disclosure”. However, the GDPR has a clear exception for “archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes”. The Bill like the GDPR does identify the two competing human rights imperatives — freedom of expression and the right to information. However, by missing the “public interest” test it does not sufficiently social power asymmetries.

Privacy and security researchers are unhappy because re-identification has been made an offence without a public interest or research exception. It is indeed a positive that the committee has made re-identification a criminal offence. This is because the de-identification standards notified by the regulator would always be catching up with the latest mathematical development. However, in order to protect the very research that the regulator needs to protect the rights of individuals, the Bill should have granted the formal and non-formal academic community immunity from liability and criminal prosecution.

Lastly but also most importantly, human rights activists are unhappy because the committee again like the GDPR did not include sufficiently specific surveillance law fixes. The European Union has historically handled this separately in the ePrivacy Regulation. Maybe that is the approach we must also follow or maybe this was a missed opportunity. Overall, the B N Srikrishna committee must be commended for producing a good data protection Bill. The task before us is to make it great and to have it enacted by Parliament at the earliest.

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