MLATs and the proposed Amendments to the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act
In continuance of our blog post on mutual legal assistance treaties (MLATs), we examine a new approach to international bilateral cooperation being suggested in the United States, by creating a mechanism for certain foreign governments to directly approach the data controllers.
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In the previous article on MLATs we discussed, in some detail, what MLATs are and why they are needed. One area which was briefly focused upon in that article was the limitations and criticisms of the MLAT mechanism, of which one of the main criticisms being the problems caused due to different legal standards in various jurisdictions as well as the time taken to process a request for information sent from one country to another. Talking specifically about the United States, where most internet companies are headquartered and hold large amounts of data, it typically takes months to process requests under MLATs and foreign governments often struggle to comprehend and comply with the legal standards in the United States for obtaining data for use in their investigations. The requirement that a foreign government should take permission from, and comply with the requirements of a foreign government simply because the data needed happens to be controlled by a service provider based in a foreign country strikes many foreign law enforcement officials as damaging to security and law enforcement efforts, especially when they are requesting data pertaining to a crime between two of their own citizens that primarily took place on their soil.
These inefficiencies of the MLAT process lead to further problems of foreign governments attempting to apply their search and surveillance laws in an extraterritorial manner for example in 2014 the UK passed the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act, 2014 with gives the government the power to directly access data from foreign service providers if sought for specific purposes and the request is approved by the Secretary of State or other specified executive branch official. Another response that may occur is if, frustrated by such inefficiencies of the existing systems, courts in foreign states start assuming extra territorial jurisdiction, as happened when a District Court in Vishakhapatnam restrained Google from complying with a subpoena issued by the Superior Court of California, ordering Google to share the password of the Gmail account belonging to an Indian citizen residing in Vishakhapatnam.
Solution proposed in the United States
In order to overcome these inefficiencies, at least in the American context, the Department of Justice has proposed a legislation which seeks to make the process of foreign governments getting information from US based entities more streamlined by amending the provisions of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of the United States (the “Amendment”). These amendments have been proposed primarily for the US and UK to effectuate a proposed bilateral agreement whereby the UK government will be able to approach US companies directly with requests for information without going through the MLAT process or getting an order from a US court.
The Amendment seeks to ensure that requests from foreign governments for information from US entities get answered in a smooth manner by including those requests in the process for seeking information under the ECPA itself. This move would no doubt, make it easier for foreign governments to access data in the US, but such a move can be criticized on the ground that it would then allow all states, irrespective of their legal standards of privacy, etc. to get access to such information. This problem has been overcome in the amendment by adding a new section to Title 18 which would allow the Attorney General, with the concurrence of the Secretary of State to certify to the Congress that the legal standards in the contracting state which is being given access to the mechanism under the ECPA satisfies certain requirements specified in the chapter (and discussed below). Only after such a certification has been received by the Congress, a contracting state would be able to receive the benefits sought to be granted under the Amendment.
It is important to note that the US administration is looking to use the US-UK Agreement as a standard to be followed for similar potential agreements with a number of other countries wherein the agencies in those countries could request information from US based entities through court orders through a properly specified legal framework. Though to our knowledge India has not been formally approached by the US government to enter into such an agreement, it is important to ask the question viz. if approached:
- Does India's present legal system meet the standards laid down in the amendment to the ECPA?
- And if they do, should India also seek to enter into such an Agreement with the United States?
- And if India does, what could be the implications for citizens and for countries in a similar position as India?
We hope to be able to answer the above three questions, or at least throw some light on them, in the conclusion of this paper by relying upon the discussions contained herein.
Criticisms of the Amendment
While such a mechanism may be very effective in addressing the needs of security agencies in investigation and prevention of criminal activities, one cannot accept such an overarching change in cross border enforcement without analyzing the consequences that such a proposal will have on the right to privacy. Some of these consequences have been highlighted by experts responding to the amendment:
Lack of Judicial Authorisation: The Amendment requires that the foreign governments have a process whereby a person could seek post-disclosure review by an independent entity instead of a warrant by a court. Although a court order is not the norm for interception even in Indian law, however under American law such protection is given to data held by American companies even though the data may belong to Indian citizens and this protection will no longer be available if the Amendment is passed.
Vague Standard for requests: Under the domestic law of any state there is usually a large amount of jurisprudence regarding when search orders can be issued, such as the “probable cause” standard that is followed in the United States or similar standards that may be followed in other jurisdictions. This ensures that even when the wording of the law is not precise, which it cannot be for such a subjective issue, there is still some amount of clarity around when and under what circumstances such warrants may be issued. In contrast, the Amendment requires that the orders be based on “requirements for a reasonable justification based on articulable and credible facts, particularity, legality, and severity regarding the conduct under investigation.” Although the language here may seem reasonable but in the absence of any jurisprudence backing it, it becomes very vague and susceptible to misuse. Disclosure without a Warrant: Under the current MLAT process as followed in the United States, a judge in the U.S. must issue a warrant based on probable cause in order for a U.S. company to turn over content to a foreign government. This requirement protects individuals abroad by requiring their governments to meet certain standards when seeking information held by U.S. companies. The Amendment seeks to remove this essential safeguard for a judicial warrant. The Amendment does not require requests from foreign governments to be based on a prior judicial authorization, since a large number of countries (including India) do not always require judicial orders for such orders.
Allows Real Time Surveillance by Foreign Governments: American privacy rights activists have raised the concern that the Amendment would allow foreign governments to conduct ongoing surveillance by asking American companies to turn over data in real time. The requirements that the foreign governments would have to fulfill to execute such an order are less stringent than those which have to be fulfilled by the American security agencies if they want to indulge in similar activities. When the U.S. government wants to conduct real-time surveillance, it must comply with the Wiretap Act, which imposes heightened privacy protections. The court orders for this purpose also require minimization of irrelevant information, are strictly time-limited, only available for certain serious crimes, etc. In Indian law any such request, apart from being time limited and being available only for certain specified purposes, also has to satisfy that interception is the only reasonable option to acquire such information.
Process to determine which countries can make demands is not credible: Under the Amendment, the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, would decide whether the laws and practices of the foreign government adequately meet the standards set forth in the legislation for entering into a bilateral agreement. Their decisions would not be liable to be reviewed by a court or in any administrative procedure. They could make their determinations based on information which is not available to the public and the criteria for making the decision are vague and flexible. Further these criteria have been described as “factors” and not “requirements” so that even if some of them are not satisfied, the certification process can still be completed.
Companies do not have the resources to determine if a request complies with the terms of the agreement: The Amendment does not provide any oversight to ensure that technology companies are only turning over information permitted in a specific bilateral agreement. For example, a bilateral agreement may permit disclosure of information only in response to orders that do not discriminate on the basis of religion, however, it may not be possible for the companies receiving the request to determine whether a particular request complies with that condition or not. The Amendment does not require that individual companies put in place requisite processes to weed out requests that may be non compliant with the provisions of the agreement; nor are there periodic audits to ensure that companies are properly responding to foreign government information requests.
Non compliance with Human Rights Standards: Under international human rights law, governments are allowed to conduct surveillance only based on individualized and sufficient suspicion; authorized by an independent and impartial decision-maker; necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, including by being the least intrusive means possible. However the mechanism proposed by the Amendment falls woefully short of these standards.
One must not lose sight of the fact that most of the criticisms of the proposal that have been discussed above have been made in the context of, and based on the standards of privacy protection that are available to American citizens. If we look at it from an Indian perspective most of those protections are not available to Indian citizens in any case since independent judicial oversight is not a sine qua non for access to information by the security agencies in India. Although the Amendment leaves open the question of how a request would be made by the foreign government to the individual Agreements, it may be safe to assume that were India to enter into such an Agreement with the United States, it would require the orders for access to comply with the standards laid down under Indian law before the relevant authorities send the request to the US based data controllers. At the least, this would ensure that the rights of Indian citizens currently guaranteed under Indian law, howsoever flawed they might be, would in all likelihood be safeguarded as per Indian law.
Certification from the Attorney General to the US Congress
In the above background if India were to enter into the agreement with the U.S Government apart from actually negotiating and signing that Agreement, the Indian government will also have to ensure (if the Amendment is passed) that the Attorney General of the United States, with the concurrence of the Secretary of State gives a certificate to the Congress that Indian law satisfies the requirements set forth in the proposed section XXXX of Title 18.
It must be kept in mind that if the negotiations between India and the United States in this regard reach such a mature stage that the certification from the Attorney General is required, then that would mean that there is enough political will on both sides to ensure that such an arrangement actually comes to fruition. In this context it would not be unfair to assume that the Attorney General may have a slight bias towards opining that Indian laws do conform to the requirements of the Amendment, as the Attorney General would want to support the decision taken by the administration, and our analysis shall have a similar bias in order to be more contextual.
The certification would, inter alia, contain the determination of the Attorney General:
- That the domestic law of India affords robust substantive and procedural protections for privacy and civil liberties in light of the data collection and activities of the Indian government that will be subject to the agreement.It should be noted that the Amendment specifies various factors that should be taken into account to reach such a determination, which include whether the Indian government:
(i) has adequate substantive and procedural laws on cybercrime and electronic evidence, as demonstrated through accession to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, or through domestic laws that are consistent with definitions and the requirements set forth in Chapters I and II of that Convention; Although India is not a signatory to the Budapest Convention the Information Technology Act, 2000 (which is the main legislation dealing with cybercrime) has penal provisions which have borrowed heavily from the provisions of the Budapest Convention.
- demonstrates respect for the rule of law and principles of nondiscrimination;
The provisions of Article 14 as well as Article 21 of the Constitution of India demonstrates that the legal regime in India is committed to the rule of law and principles of non discrimination.
- adheres to applicable international human rights obligations and commitments or demonstrates respect for international universal human rights (including but not limited to protection from arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; fair trial rights; freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly; prohibitions on arbitrary arrest and detention; and prohibitions against torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment);
India is a signatory to a number of international human rights conventions and treaties, it has acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), 1966, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), 1966, ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), 1965, with certain reservations, signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), 1979 with certain reservations, Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989 and signed the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), 1984. Further the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution takes within its fold a number of human rights such as the right to privacy. Freedom of expression, right to fair trial, freedom of assembly, right against arbitrary arrest and detention are all fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India.
- has clear legal mandates and procedures governing those entities of the foreign government that are authorized to seek data under the executive agreement, including procedures through which those authorities collect, retain, use, and share data, and effective of oversight of these activities;
India has a number of legislations which govern the interception and request for information such as the Information Technology Act, 2000, the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, etc. which put in place mechanisms governing the authorities and entities which can ask for information.
- has sufficient mechanisms to provide accountability and appropriate transparency regarding the government’s collection and use of electronic data; and
The Right to Information Act, 2005 provides the citizens the right to access any public document unless access to the same is prohibited due to the specific exemptions provided in the Act. It may be noted here that the provisions of the Right to Information Act are often frustrated by the bureaucracy by using exceptions such as “national security”, but for the purposes of this write up we are already assuming a bias towards fulfillment of these factors/conditions and therefore as long as there is even some evidence of compliance, the conditions will be considered as fulfilled by the Attorney General for the purposes of his certificate.
- demonstrates a commitment to promote and protect the global free flow of information and the open, distributed, and interconnected nature of the Internet.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which regulates telecom services in India has also issued the Prohibition of Discriminatory Tariffs for Data Services Regulations, 2016 which prohibits service providers from charging discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.
Other than Indian law, the certificate from the Attorney General will also have to certify certain issues which would have to be addressed in the bilateral agreement itself, viz.:
- That the Indian government has adopted appropriate procedures to minimize the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of information concerning United States persons subject to the agreement.
- That the agreement requires the following with respect to orders subject to the agreement:
(i) The Indian government may not intentionally target a United States person or a person located in the United States, and must adopt targeting procedures designed to meet this requirement;
(ii) The Indian government may not target a non–United States person located outside the United States if the purpose is to obtain information concerning a United States person or a person located in the United States;
(iii) The Indian government may not issue an order at the request of or to obtain information to provide to the United States government or a third-party government, nor shall the Indian government be required to share any information produced with the United States government or a third-party government;
(iv) Orders issued by the Indian government must be for the purpose of obtaining information relating to the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution of serious crime, including terrorism;
(v) Orders issued by the Indian government must identify a specific person, account, address, or personal device, or any other specific identifier as the object of the Order;
(vi) Orders issued by the Indian government must be in compliance with the domestic laws of India, and any obligation for a provider of an electronic communications service or a remote computing service to produce data shall derive solely from Indian law;
(vii) Orders issued by the Indian government must be based on requirements for a reasonable justification based on articulable and credible facts, particularity, legality, and severity regarding the conduct under investigation;
(viii) Orders issued by the Indian government must be subject to review or oversight by a court, judge, magistrate, or other independent authority;
(ix) Orders issued by the Indian government for the interception of wire or electronic communications, and any extensions thereof, must be for a fixed, limited duration; interception may last no longer than is reasonably necessary to accomplish the approved purposes of the order; and orders may only be issued where that same information could not reasonably be obtained by another less intrusive method;
(x) Orders issued by the Indian government may not be used to infringe freedom of speech;
(xi) The Indian government must promptly review all material collected pursuant to the agreement and store any unreviewed communications on a secure system accessible only to those trained in applicable procedures;
(xii) The Indian government must segregate, seal, or delete, and not disseminate material found not to be information that is, or is necessary to understand or assess the importance of information that is, relevant to the prevention, detection, investigation, or prosecution of serious crime, including terrorism, or necessary to protect against a threat of death or seriously bodily harm to any person;
(xiii) The Indian government may not disseminate the content of a communication of a U.S. person to U.S. authorities unless the communication (a) may be disseminated pursuant to Section 4(a)(3)(xii) and (b) relates to significant harm, or the threat thereof, to the United States or U.S. persons, including but not limited to crimes involving national security such as terrorism, significant violent crime, child exploitation, transnational organized crime, or significant financial fraud;
(xiv) The Indian government must afford reciprocal rights of data access to the United States government;
(xv) The Indian government must agree to periodic review of its compliance with the terms of the agreement by the United States government; and
(xvi) The United States government must reserve the right to render the agreement inapplicable as to any order for which it concludes the agreement may not properly be invoked.
It is clear from the discussion above that the proposed Amendment is a controversial piece of legislation which will affect the way law enforcement is carried out in the internet. While there is no doubt that proposing an alternate mechanism to the existing inefficient MLAT structure is definitely the need of the hour, whether the mechanism proposed in the proposed Amendment, with all the negative implications on privacy, is the right way forward is far from certain.
As for the three questions that we had sought out to answer in the beginning of this paper, we would not like to say that Indian law definitely conforms to all the requirements listed in the Amendments, but it can safely be said that it appears that if the governments of India and the United States so wish, it would not be difficult for the Attorney General of the United States to be able to give a certification to the Congress as required in the proposed Amendment.
The other two questions as to whether India should try to opt for such an arrangement if given a chance and what would be the consequence for its people are somewhat related, in the sense that it is only by examining the consequences on its citizens that we will arrive at an answer as to whether India should opt for such an arrangement or not. The level of protections offered to Indian citizens under India law in terms of protection of their private data from government surveillance is lower than that which is offered to American citizens under American law. The growing influence of the internet is changing the citizen-state dynamic giving rise to increasing incidents where the government has to approach private actors for permission in order to carry out their governmental functions of providing security. This is because more and more private data of individual citizens is being uploaded on to the internet and controlled by private actors such as telecom companies, social media sites, etc. and the governments have to approach these private actors in case they want access to this information. The fact that the government has to approach private actors to get access to data gives private citizens some leverage to ask for better privacy protections in the context of state surveillance.
Although this proposed Amendment may not affect the local surveillance laws in India, however it would definitely have an effect on the way that citizens’ data is protected and accessed by the government.
 Explanation by the Assistant Attorney General attached to the proposed Amendment.
 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, art. 17, Dec. 19, 1966, U.N.T.S 999, cf. https://www.aclu.org/letter/aclu-amnesty-international-usa-and-hrw-letter-opposing-doj-proposal-cross-border-data-sharing