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Data protection experts slam state for sending mass SMSes

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 27, 2012 03:46 AM
Experts in the field of data protection, privacy law and media have criticised the West Bengal government's mass SMS sent to individuals, companies and media houses through private mobile networks last Friday. Lara Choksey reports this in an article published in the Statesman on March 25, 2012.

The government's use of private data in order to spread political messages is ethically dubious and dangerous, say some.  The SMS indirectly refers to The Telegraph's publication of the Poonam Pandey tweet, warning against the transmission of “provocative and indecent photographs for hurting the religious sentiments of people and disrupting communal harmony.” It urges recipients to “frustrate the designs of … unscrupulous people and maintain peace and communal harmony,” and is signed by “Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister”. 

Speaking to The Statesman on Saturday, Mumbai-based media lecturer Ms Geeta Seshu identified two issues with the government sending out political messages through mobile phone networks. 

Firstly, from an ethical standpoint, the unchecked freedom of mobile phone companies to hand out private data is “completely wrong”, she said.  

Secondly, the use of government funds for such dissemination needs to be transparent. If the state government has used public funds to distribute its message through a mobile phone network, then this information should be readily available, said Ms Seshu. 

The Telecom Regulation Authority of India's (Trai) unsolicited commercial communications regulations allow unsolicited advertising through mobile phone networks.  

Mr Apar Gupta, partner of Delhi-based law firm Advani and Co., explained, “The regulations are not wide enough to prohibit communications from a political party.” He observed, “Using SMS messages is a very efficient propaganda tool because so many people have access to mobile phones.” 

Mobile phone networks such as Vodafone make it clear in their privacy policies that the personal data of its customers “may be used for inclusion in any telephone or similar directory or directory enquiry service provided or operated by us or by a third party” (source Vodafone website).

Any third party  ~ governmental or corporate ~ can therefore access the company's directory of private mobile numbers at the discretion of the network in question. 

It is not yet clear which government department coordinated the SMS, or what funds were used to cover the costs. Representatives from the ministry of information and cultural affairs were not able to shed a light on the matter. “I know that a message was sent out,” said the I & CA director Umapada Chatterjee, "But it was not sent from this department. I do not know that information.”   

Some commentators did not condemn the government's SMS. Delhi High Court lawyer and cyber law expert, Mr Praveen Dalal, criticised the publication of the Poonam Pandey tweet on the grounds of it violating the due diligence guidelines of the Cyber Law of India. He commented, “If casual and careless publications … continue, there would be no other option left for the government but to regulate their affairs in a more intrusive manner.” 

However, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, Mr Sunil Abraham, called the state government's use of unsolicited SMS a “clear abuse of the powers afforded by elected office.” Mr Abraham explained that elected representatives would be justified in such measures, and in utilising public funds, in the event of a disaster, or when public order, public health or national security are compromised.

“However in this case, the government is abusing the provisions of the law and using this incident as a pretext to threaten media professionals with surveillance and to intimidate for the purposes of reigning in free speech,” he told The Statesman. The chief minister was unavailable to make a comment on the matter.

Read the original published in the Statesman

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