Tech companies like Gmail, WhatsApp may be asked to store user information
The government is moving to formulate rules that will require technology ‘intermediaries’— including email services like Gmail, chat apps such as WhatsApp and Snapchat or even ecommerce firms like Amazon — to retain user information, a development that is expected to be met with determined opposition.
The article by Surabhi Agarwal was published in Economic Times on October 14, 2016. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.
What the government is looking to do now is draft rules for Section 67C of the Information Technology Act, and this will be done by a committee that has been set up for the purpose. The rules — whose drafting has been waiting since 2008 — will spell out what type of data has to be stored, in which format, and for how long, according to three members of the newly-formed committee. All this so that law-enforcement agencies can access the information if they need it.
Sharing of information between foreign firms and the Indian government has been a contentious issue, and experts said the mandate may be impossible to implement for firms such as WhatsApp that promise end-to-end encryption. Or for Snapchat – a chat app where messages disappear within seconds and are not even stored on the company’s servers.
Firms may also oppose the diktat, especially since most of them are not governed by Indian laws and also due to the high cost of data retention.
The committee is headed by additional secretary in the ministry of electronics and IT (MEITY), Ajay Kumar, and has one representative each from the ministry of home affairs, department of telecom, department of personnel and training, Nasscom, Internet Service Provider Association of India (ISPAI), along with an advocate specialising in cyber law and a few officers from MEITY. The first meeting of the committee took place in the last week of September.
“This is a fairly complex issue, compounded by the general lack of understanding of mobile apps and over the top service providers,” said a person on the committee who did not wish to be identified. This person said that most technology players are based in the United States and they have always been at loggerheads about sharing of information with the government. “Even if it is for national security reasons, how much are these companies answerable to the Indian security establishment? And we do know how Apple refused to unlock the phone even for FBI."
Supreme Court lawyer and cyber law expert Pavan Duggal said the section has been drafted in very “broad” terms and the move may be driven by the realisation that these companies are huge data repositories – some of which might be relevant to law enforcement investigations. “It will have to be a huge balancing act and will be interesting to see what this committee decides,” added Duggal.
While Section 67C refers to the obligation of the service providers to retain information, the nature of the data to be retained and the time period is not specified. Companies which do not comply with the law can be levied fine and its officers sent to jail.
Another member on the committee said the ambit of this task is huge. “In the last meeting we argued that the rules should be the same for everybody and there should be no differential treatment for foreign companies such as Google or Microsoft,” he said. This person said that ambiguity is rampant as various government arms have different sets of rules for data retention.
For instance, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) asks for data to be stored for six months, while the Registrar of Companies mandates some information to be retained for one year while the income-tax rules mandate data storage for six-seven years. “There has only been one meeting so far. It is a long procedure and will require several rounds of consultation,” said a third person on the committee.
Privacy activists like Pranesh Prakash of the Centre for Internet and Society said that one of the principles that’s frequently cited while discussing international practices on surveillance is that data retention should not be required of service providers.
And internationally too, there is no standard on this issue. “There were norms at the European Union-level regarding data retention, but they were struck down in 2014 by the European Court of Justice as being violative of human rights,” he said.