Centre for Internet & Society

The Centre for Internet and Society organised a conference in roundtable format called ‘Human Rights in the Age of Digital Technology: A Conference to discuss the evolution of Privacy and Surveillance. The conference was held at Indian Habitat Centre on October 30, 2015. The conference was designed to be a forum for discussion, knowledge exchange and agenda building to draw a shared road map for the coming months.

In India, the Right to Privacy has been interpreted to mean an individual's’ right to be left alone. In the age of massive use of Information and Communications Technology, it has become imperative to have this right protected. The Supreme Court has held in a number of its decisions that the right to privacy is implicit in the fundamental right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, though Part III does not explicitly mention this right. The Supreme Court has identified the right to privacy most often in the context of state surveillance and introduced the standards of compelling state interest, targetted surveillance and oversight mechanism which have been incorporated in the forms of rules under the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.  Of late, privacy concerns have gained importance in India due to the initiation of national programmes like the UID Scheme, DNA Profiling, the National Encryption Policy, etc. attracting criticism for their impact on the right to privacy. To add to the growing concerns, the Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi argued in the ongoing Aadhaar case that the judicial position on whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right is unclear and has questioned the entire body of jurisprudence on right to privacy in the last few decades.


The roundtable saw participation from various civil society organisation such as Centre for Communication Governance, The Internet Democracy Project, as well as individual researchers like Dr. Usha Ramanathan and Colonel Mathew.


Vipul Kharbanda, Consultant, CIS made the introductions and laid down the agenda for the day. Vipul presented a brief overview of the kind of work of CIS is engaged in around privacy and surveillance, in areas including among others, the Human DNA Profiling Bill, 2014, the Aadhaar Project, the Privacy Bill and surveillance laws in India. It was also highlighted that CIS was engaged in work in the field of Big Data in light of the growing voices wanting to use Big Data in the Smart Cities projects, etc and one of the questions was to analyse whether the 9 Privacy Principles would still be valid in a Big Data and IoT paradigm.

The Aadhaar Case

Dr. Usha Ramanathan began by calling the Aadhaar project an identification project as opposed to an identity project. She brought up various aspects of project ranging from the myth of voluntariness, the strong and often misleading marketing that has driven the project, the lack of mandate to collect biometric data and the problems with the technology itself. She highlighted  inconsistencies, irrationalities and lack of process that has characterised the Aadhaar project since its inception. A common theme that she identified in how the project has been run was the element of ad-hoc-ness about many important decisions taken on a national scale and migrating from existing systems to the Aadhaar framework. She particularly highlighted the fact that as civil society actors trying to make sense of the project, an acute problem faced was the lack of credible information available. In that respect, she termed it as ‘powerpoint-driven project’ with a focus on information collection but little information available about the project itself. Another issue that Dr. Ramanathan brought up was that the lack of concern that had been exhibited by most people in sharing their biometric information without being aware of what it would be used, was in some ways symptomatic of they way we had begun to interact with technology and willingly giving information about ourselves, with little thought. Dr Ramanathan’s presentation detailed the response to the project from various quarters in the form of petitions in different high courts in India, how the cases were received by the courts and the contradictory response from the government at various stages. Alongside, she also sought to place the Aadhaar case in the context of various debates and issues, like its conflict with the National Population Register, exclusion, issues around ownership of data collected, national security implications and impact on privacy and surveillance. Aside from the above issues, Dr. Ramanathan also posited that the kind of flat idea of identity envisaged by projects like Aadhaar is problematic in that it adversely impacts how people can live, act and define themselves. In summation, she termed the behavior of the government as irresponsible for the manner in which it has changed its stand on issues to suit the expediency of the moment, and was particularly severe on the Attorney General raising questions about the existence of a fundamental right to privacy and casually putting in peril jurisprudence on civil liberties that has evolved over decades.

Colonel Mathew concurred with Dr. Ramanathan that the Aadhaar Project was not about identity but about identification. Prasanna developed on this further saying that while identity was a right unto the individual, identification was something done to you by others. Colonel Mathew further presented a brief history of the Aadhaar case, and how the significant developments over the last few years have played out in the courts. One of the important questions that Colonel Mathew addressed was the claim of uniqueness made by the UID project. He pointed to research conducted by Hans Varghese Mathew which analysed the data on biometric collection and processing released by the UID and demonstrated that there was a clear probability of a duplication in 1 out of every 97 enrolments. He also questioned the oft-repeated claim that UID would give identification to those without it and allow them to access welfare schemes. In this context, he pointed at the failures of the introducer system and the fact that only 0.03% of those registered have been enrolled through the introducer system. Colonel Mathew also questioned the change in stance by the ruling party, BJP which had earlier declared that the UID project should be scrapped as it was a threat to national security. According to him, the prime mover of the scheme were corporate interests outside the country interested in the data to be collected. This, he claimed created very serious risks to the national security. Prasanna further added to this point stating that while, on the face of it, some of the claims of threats to national security may sound alarmist in nature, if one were to critically study the manner in which the data had collected for this project, the concerns appeared justified.

The Draft Encryption Policy

Amber Sinha, Policy Officer at CIS, made a presentation on the brief appearance of the Draft Encryption Policy which was released in October this year, and withdrawn by the government within a day. Amber provided an overview of the policy emphasising on clauses around limitations on kind of encryption algorithms and key sizes individuals and organisations could use and the ill-advised procedures that needed to be followed. After the presentation, the topic was opened for discussion. The initial part of the discussion was focussed on specific clauses that threatened privacy and could serve the ends of enabling greater surveillance of the electronic communications of individuals and organisations, most notably having an exhaustive list of encryption algorithms, and the requirement to keep all encrypted communication in plain text format for a period of 90 days. We also attempted to locate the draft policy in the context of privacy debates in India as well as the global response to encryption. Amber emphasised that while mandating minimum standards of encryption for communication between government agencies may be a honorable motive, as it is concerned with matters of national security, however when this is extended to private parties and involved imposes upward thresholds on the kinds of encryption they can use, it stems from the motive of surveillance. Nayantara, of The Internet Democracy Project, pointed out that there had been global push back against encryption by governments in various countries like US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Israel, UK, Tunisia and Morocco. In India also, the IT Act places limits on encryption. Her points stands further buttressed by the calls against encryption in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last month.

It also intended to have a session on the Human DNA Profiling Bill led by Dr. Menaka Guruswamy. However, due to certain issues in scheduling and paucity of time, we were not able to have the session.

Questions Raised

On Aadhaar, some of the questions raised included the question of  applicability of the Section 43A, IT Act rules to the private parties involved in the process. The issue of whether Aadhaar can be tool against corruption was raised by Vipul. However, Colonel Mathew demonstrated through his research that issues like corruption in the TPDS system and MNREGA which Aadhaar is supposed to solve, are not effectively addressed by it but that there were simpler solutions to these problems.

Ranjit raised questions about the different contexts of privacy, and referred to the work of Helen Nissenbaum. He spoke about the history of freely providing biometric information in India, initially for property documents and how it has gradually been used for surveillance. He argued has due to this tradition, many people in India do not view sharing of biometric information as infringing on their privacy. Dipesh Jain, student at Jindal Global Law School pointed to challenges like how individual privacy is perceived in India, its various contexts, and people resorting to the oft-quoted dictum of ‘why do you want privacy if you have nothing to hide’. In the context, it is pertinent to mention the response of Edward Snowden to this question who said, “Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” Aakash Solanki, researcher

Vipul and Amber also touched upon the new challenges that are upon us in a world of Big Data where traditional ways to ensure data protection through data minimisation principle and the methods like anonymisation may not work. With advances in computer science and mathematics threatening to re-identify anonymized datasets, and more and more reliances of secondary uses of data coupled with the inadequacy of the idea of informed consent, a significant paradigm shift may be required in how we view privacy laws.

A number of action items going forward were also discussed, where different individuals volunteered to lead research on issues like the UBCC set up by the UIDAI, GSTN, the first national data utility, looking the recourses available to individual where his data is held by parties outside India’s jurisdiction.

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