Centre for Internet & Society

In the run-up to the Justice BN Srikrishna committee report, some stakeholders have advocated that consent be eliminated and replaced with stronger accountability obligations. This was rejected and the committee has released a draft bill that has consent as the bedrock just like the GDPR. And like the GDPR there exists legal basis for nonconsensual processing of data for the “functions of the state”. What does this mean for lawabiding persons?

The article was published in Economic Times on July 30, 2018

Non-consensual processing is permitted in the bill as long it is “necessary for any function of the” Parliament or any state legislature. These functions need not be authorised by law.

Or alternatively “necessary for any function of the state authorised by law” for the provision of a service or benefit, issuance of any certification, licence or permit.
Fortunately, however, the state remains bound by the eight obligations in chapter two i.e., fair and reasonable processing, purpose limitation, collection limitation, lawful processing, notice and data quality and data storage limitations and accountability. This ground in the GDPR has two sub-clauses: one, the task passes the public interest test and two, the loophole like the Indian bill that possibly includes all interactions the state has with all persons.

The “necessary” test appears both on the grounds for non-consensual processing, and in the “collection limitation” obligation in chapter two of the bill. For sensitive personal data, the test is raised to “strictly necessary”. But the difference is not clarified and the word “necessary” is used in multiple senses.

Under the “collection limitation” obligation the bill says “necessary for the purposes of processing” which indicates a connection to the “purpose limitation” obligation. The “purpose limitation” obligation, however, only requires the state to have a purpose that is “clear, specific and lawful” and processing limited to the “specific purpose” and “any other incidental purpose that the data principal would reasonably expect the personal data to be used for”. It is perhaps important at this point to note that the phrase “data minimisation” does not appear anywhere in the bill.

Therefore “necessary” could broadly understood to mean data Parliament or the state legislature requires to perform some function unauthorised by law, and data the citizen might reasonably expect a state authority to consider incidental to the provision of a service or benefit, issuance of a certificate, licence or permit.

Or alternatively more conservatively understood to mean data without which it would be impossible for Parliament and state legislature to carry out functions mandated by the law, and data without it would be impossible for the state to provide the specific service or benefit or issue certificates, licences and permits. It is completely unclear like with the GDPR why an additional test of “strictly necessary” is — if you will forgive the redundancy — necessary.

After 10 years of Aadhaar, the average citizen “reasonably expects” the state to ask for biometric data to provide subsidised grain. But it is not impossible to provide subsidised grain in a corruption-free manner without using surveillance technology that can be used to remotely, covertly and non-consensually identify persons. Smart cards, for example, implement privacy by design. Therefore a “reasonable expectation” test is not inappropriate since this is not a question about changing social mores.

When it comes to persons that are not law abiding the bill has two exceptions — “security of the state” and “prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of contraventions of law”. Here the “necessary” test is combined with the “proportionate” test.

The proportionate test further constrains processing. For example, GPS data may be necessary for detecting someone has jumped a traffic signal but it might not be a proportionate response for a minor violation. Along with the requirement for “procedure established by law”, this is indeed a well carved out exception if the “necessary” test is interpreted conservatively. The only points of concern here is that the infringement of a fundamental right for minor offences and also the “prevention” of offences which implies processing of personal data of innocent persons.

Ideally consent should be introduced for law-abiding citizens even if it is merely tokenism because you cannot revoke consent if you have not granted it in the first place. Or alternatively, a less protective option would be to admit that all egovernance in India will be based on surveillance, therefore “necessary” should be conservatively defined and the “proportionate” test should be introduced as an additional safeguard.

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