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Experts' committee moots law to protect privacy

by Prasad Krishna last modified Oct 22, 2012 10:18 AM
In its report submitted to the Planning Commission on Thursday, the first ever experts’ group to identify the privacy issues and prepare a report to facilitate authoring of the privacy bill, has said that existing laws have created an ‘unclear regulatory regime’ which allows a state to be intrusive.

Saikat Datta's article was published in DNA on October 19, 2012


The report has been prepared by experts led by justice AP Shah, former chief justice of the Delhi high court.

In its exceptions to the proposed law on privacy, the experts’ group has recommended that national security, public order and disclosures made in ‘public interest’ will be exempted from the limitations of privacy. Several members of the group unsuccessfully argued to bring in the Intelligence agencies which are empowered to legally tap phones, intercept emails and conduct surveillance on citizens under the ambit of the Privacy Act.

The report, a copy of which is available with DNA, recognises that there are major differences in the existing laws that permit intrusive phone-tapping or surveillance of private citizens by the government.The group feels that “these differences have created an unclear regulatory regime that is inconsistent, non-transparent, and prone to misuse and does not provide remedy or compensation to aggrieved individuals.”

Therefore, the group has recommended that when the government conducts any intrusive surveillance like phone tapping, it must adhere to the principles of proportionality, legality and remain within the boundaries of a democratic state.

“The limitation (on tapping phones, etc) should be in proportion to the harm that has been caused or will be caused,” the report states.

Interestingly, the report also exempts the disclosure of personal or private information for journalistic or historical and scientific purposes from being curbed under the proposed Privacy Act. Interestingly, this will give journalists a legal cover from being hauled up under the proposed privacy laws when they file stories.

The government is keen to enact a privacy law quickly because of two major issues. The fallout of the leakage of the tapes of Niira Radia speaking to industry heads like Ratan Tata which led to a renewed clamour for a comprehensive Privacy Act. Ironically, anything related to phone-tapping has now been left out of the provisions of such an Act.

The other reason was the pressure from the industry that is keen to get business from abroad that deals with sensitive personal data. In the absence of any personal data protection laws, Indian companies were not getting any business from European or American firms. With this law, India can look forward to getting substantial business that involves personal data.

With this framework in mind the experts’ group has recommended that notice be given to any individual from whom personal information will be sought. With intrusive government projects like the UID or the NATGRID, the group was worried that this kind of massive data in the hands of the government could turn this into a police state.

It has also mandated that the choice and consent of the individual must be taken before collecting this information. Also, there has to be a limitation on collecting this information and anything that has been collected will use the data for only a limited purpose. A data controller should be appointed to collect, maintain and use the data under strict stipulations.

Therefore, the data controller will be made accountable for any lapse in handling or disclosure of the data. To ensure that this kind of control can be exercised, the group has suggested the appointment of privacy commissioners who will adjudicate on any matter of illegal disclosures and mete out server punishment.

Recommendations

  • National security, public order and disclosures made in ‘public interest’ will be exempted from the limitations of privacy
  • The limitation (on tapping phones, etc) should be in proportion to the harm caused or will be caused
  • Disclosure of personal or private information for journalistic or historical and scientific purposes should be exempted from being curbed under the proposed Act
  • Notice be given to individual from whom information has to be sought
  • A data controller should be appointed to collect, maintain and use the data
  • Privacy commissioners who will adjudicate on any matter of illegal disclosures be appointed

Note: The Centre for Internet & Society was part of the expert committee even though not explicitly mentioned.

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