RBI Directions on Account Aggregators

Posted by Vipul Kharbanda and Elonnai Hickok at Oct 21, 2016 03:25 PM |
The Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) Directions for account aggregator services in India seem to lay great emphasis on data security by allowing only direct access between institutions and do away with data scraping techniques.

These days’ people have access to various financial services and manage their finances in a diverse manner while dealing with a large number of financial service providers, each providing one or more services that the user may need such as banking, credit card services, investment services, etc. This multiplicity of financial service providers could make it inconvenient for the users to keep track of their finances since all the information cannot be provided at the same place. This problem is sought to be solved by the account aggregators by providing all the financial data of the user at a single place. Account aggregation is the consolidation of online financial account information (e.g., from banks, credit card companies, etc.) for online retrieval at one site. In a typical arrangement, an intermediary (e.g., a  portal) agrees with a third party service provider to provide the service to consumers, the intermediary would then generally privately label the service and offer consumers access to it at the intermediary’s website.[1] There are two major ways in which account aggregation takes place, (i) direct access: wherein the account aggregator gets direct access to the data of the user residing in the computer system of the financial service provider; and (ii) scraping: where the user provides the account aggregator the username and password for its account in the different financial service providers and the account aggregator scrapes the information off the website/portal of the different financial service providers.

Since account aggregation involves the use and exchange of financial information there could be a number of potential risks associated with it such as (i) loss of passwords; (ii) frauds; (iii) security breaches at the account aggregator, etc. It is for this reason that on the advice of the Financial Stability and Development Council,[2] the Reserve Bank of India (“RBI”) felt the need to regulate this sector and on September 2, 2016 issued the Non-Banking Financial Company - Account Aggregator (Reserve Bank) Directions, 2016 to provide a framework for the registration and operation of Account Aggregators in India (the “Directions”). The Directions provide that no company shall be allowed to undertake the business of account aggregators without being registered with the RBI as an NBFC-Account Aggregator. The Directions also specify the conditions that have to be fulfilled for consideration of an entity as an Account Aggregator such as:

  1. the company should have a net owned fund of not less than rupees two crore, or such higher amount as the Bank may specify;
  2. the company should have the necessary resources and wherewithal to offer account aggregator services;
  3. the company should have adequate capital structure to undertake the business of an account aggregator;
  4. the promoters of the company should be fit and proper individuals;
  5. the general character of the management or proposed management of the company should not be prejudicial to the public interest;
  6. the company should have a plan for a robust Information Technology system;
  7. the company should not have a leverage ratio of more than seven;
  8. the public interest should be served by the grant of certificate of registration; and
  9. Any other condition that made be specified by the Bank from time to time.[3]

The Direction further talk about the responsibilities of the Account Aggregators and specify that the account aggregators shall have the duties such as: (a) Providing services to a customer based on the customer’s explicit consent; (b) Ensuring that the provision of services is backed by appropriate agreements/ authorisations between the Account Aggregator, the customer and the financial information providers; (c) Ensuring proper customer identification; (d) Sharing the financial information only with the customer or any other financial information user specifically authorized by the customer; (e) Having a Citizen's Charter explicitly guaranteeing protection of the rights of a customer.[4]

The Account Aggregators are also prohibited from indulging in certain activities such as: (a) Support transactions by customers; (b) Undertaking any other business other than the business of account aggregator; (c) Keeping or “residing” with itself the financial information of the customer accessed by it; (d) Using the services of a third party for undertaking its business activities; (e) Accessing user authentication credentials of customers; (f) Disclosing or parting with any information that it may come to acquire from/ on behalf of a customer without the explicit consent of the customer.[5] The fact that there is a prohibition on the information accessed from actually residing with the Account Aggregator will ensure greater security and protection of the information.

Consent Framework

The Directions specify that the function of obtaining, submitting and managing the customer’s consent should be performed strictly in accordance with the Directions and that no information shall be retrieved, shared or transferred without the explicit consent of the customer.[6] The consent is to be taken in a standardized artefact, which can also be obtained in electronic form,[7] and shall contain details as to (i) the identity of the customer and optional contact information; (ii) the nature of the financial information requested; (iii) purpose of collecting the information; (iv) the identity of the recipients of the information, if any; (v) URL or other address to which notification needs to be sent every time the consent artefact is used to access information; (vi) Consent creation date, expiry date, identity and signature/ digital signature of the Account Aggregator; and (vii) any other attribute as may be prescribed by the RBI.[8] The account aggregator is required to inform the customer of all the necessary attributes to be contained in the consent artefact as well as the customer’s right to file complaints with the relevant authorities.[9] The customers shall also be provided an option to revoke consent to obtain information that is rendered accessible by a consent artefact, including the ability to revoke consent to obtain parts of such information.[10]

Comments: While the Directions have specific provisions regarding how the financial data shall be dealt with, it is pertinent to note that the actual consent artefact also has personal information and it is not clear whether Account Aggregators are allowed disclose that information to third parties are not.

Disclosure and sharing of financial information

Financial information providers such as banks, mutual funds, etc. are allowed to share information with account aggregators only upon being presented with a valid consent artifact and also have the responsibility to verify the consent as well as the credentials of the account aggregator.[11] Once the verification is done, the financial information provider shall digitally sign the financial information and transmit the same to the Account Aggregator in a secure manner in real time, as per the terms of the consent.[12] In order to ensure smooth flow of data, the Directions also impose an obligation on financial information providers to:

  • implement interfaces that will allow an Account Aggregator to submit consent artefacts, and authenticate each other, and enable secure flow of financial information;
  • adopt means to verify the consent including digital signatures;
  • implement means to digitally sign the financial information; and
  • maintain a log of all information sharing requests and the actions performed pursuant to such requests, and submit the same to the Account Aggregator.[13]

Comments: The Directions provide that the Account Aggregator will not support any transactions by the customers and this seems to suggest that in case of any mistakes in the information the customer would have to approach the financial information provider and not the Account Aggregator.

Use of Information

The Directions provide that in cases where financial information has been provided by a financial information provider to an Account Aggregator for transferring the same to a financial information user with the explicit consent of the customer, the Account Aggregator shall transfer the same in a secure manner in accordance with the terms of the consent artefact only after verifying the identity of the financial information user.[14] Such information, as well as information which may be provided for transferring to the customer, shall not be used or disclosed by the Account Aggregator or the Financial Information user except as specified in the consent artefact.[15]

Data Security

The Directions specify that the business of an Account Aggregator will be entirely Information Technology (IT) driven and they are required to adopt required IT framework and interfaces to ensure secure data flows from the financial information providers to their own systems and onwards to the financial information users.[16] This technology should also be scalable to cover any other financial information or financial information providers as may be specified by the RBI in the future.[17] The IT systems should also have adequate safeguards to ensure they are protected against unauthorised access, alteration, destruction, disclosure or dissemination of records and data.[18] Information System Audit of the internal systems and processes should be in place and be conducted at least once in two years by CISA certified external auditors whose report is to be submitted to the RBI.[19] The Account Aggregators are prohibited from asking for or storing customer credentials (like passwords, PINs, private keys) which may be used for authenticating customers to the financial information providers and their access to customer’s information will be based only on consent-based authorisation (for scraping).[20]

Grievance Redressal

The Directions require the Account Aggregator to put in place a policy for handling/ disposal of customer grievances/ complaints, which shall be approved by its Board and also have a dedicated set-up to address customer grievances/ complaints which shall be handled and addressed in the manner prescribed in the policy.[21] The Account Aggregator also has to display the name and details of the Grievance Redressal Officer on its website as well as place of business.[22]

Supervision

The Directions require the Account Aggregators to put in place various internal checks and balances to ensure that the business of the Account Aggregator does not violate any laws or regulations such as constitution of an Audit Committee, a Nomination Committee to ensure the “fit and proper” status of its Directors, a Risk Management Committee and establishment of a robust and well documented risk management framework.[23] The Risk Management Committee is required to (a) give due consideration to factors such as reputation, customer confidence, consequential impact and legal implications, with regard to investment in controls and security measures for computer systems, networks, data centres, operations and backup facilities; and b) have oversight of technology risks and ensure that the organisation’s IT function is capable of supporting its business strategies and objectives.[24] Further the RBI also has the power to inspect any Account Aggregator at any time.[25]

Penalties

The Directions themselves do not provide for any penalties for non compliance, however since the Directions are issued under Section 45JA of the Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934 (“RBI Act”), this means that any contravention of these directions will be punishable under Section 58B of the RBI Act which provides for an imprisonment of upto 3 years as well as a fine for any contravention of such directions.

Conclusion

The Directions by the RBI provide a number of regulations and checks on Account Aggregators with the view to ensure safety of customer financial data. These Directions appear to be quite trendsetting in the sense that in most other jurisdictions such as the United States or even Europe there are no specific regulations governing Account Aggregators but their activities are mainly being governed under existing privacy or consumer protection legislations.[26]

The entire regulatory regime for Account Aggregators seems to suggest that the RBI wants Account Aggregators to be like funnels to channel information from various platforms right to the customer (or financial information user) and it does not want to take a chance with the information actually residing with the Account Aggregators. Further, by prohibiting Account Aggregators from accessing user authentication credentials, the RBI is trying to eliminate the possibility of this information being leaked or stolen. Although this may make it more onerous for Account Aggregators to provide their services, it is a great step to ensure the safety and security of customer data.

In recent months the RBI has been trying to actively engage with the various new products being introduced in the financial sector owing to various technological advancements, be it the circular informing the public about the risks of virtual currencies including Bitcoin, the consultation paper on P2P lending platforms or these current guidelines on Account Aggregators. These recent actions of the RBI seem to suggest that the RBI is well aware of various technological advancements in the financial sector and is keeping a keen eye on these technologies and products, but appears to be taking a cautious and weighted approach regarding how to deal with them.


[1] Ann S. Spiotto, Financial Account Aggregation: The Liability Perspective, Fordham Journal of Corporate & Financial Law, 2006, Volume 8, Issue 2, Article 6, available at http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1181&context=jcfl

[2] https://rbi.org.in/scripts/BS_PressReleaseDisplay.aspx?prid=34345

[3] Clause 4.2.2 of the Directions.

[4] Clause 5 of the Directions.

[5] Clause 5 of the Directions.

[6] Clauses 6.1 and 6.2 of the Directions.

[7] Clause 6.4 of the Directions.

[8] Clause 6.3 of the Directions.

[9] Clause 6.5 of the Directions.

[10] Clause 6.6 of the Directions.

[11] Clauses 7.1 and 7.2 of the Directions.

[12] Clauses 7.3 and 7.4 of the Directions.

[13] Clause 7.5 of the Directions.

[14] Clause 7.6.1 of the Directions.

[15] Clause 7.6.2 of the Directions.

[16] Clause 9(a) of the Directions.

[17] Clause 9(c) of the Directions.

[18] Clause 9(d) of the Directions.

[19] Clause 9(f) of the Directions.

[20] Clause 9(b) of the Directions.

[21] Clauses 10.1 and 10.2 of the Directions.

[22] Clause 10.3 of the Directions.

[23] Clauses 12.2, 12.3 and 12.4 of the Directions.

[24] Clause 12.4 of the Directions.

[25] Clause 15 of the Directions.

[26] http://www.canadiancybersecuritylaw.com/2016/07/german-regulator-finds-banks-data-rules-impede-non-bank-competitors/

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