Centre for Internet & Society

A group of officers was created to develop a framework for a privacy legislation that would balance the need for privacy protection, security, sectoral interests, and respond to the domain legislation on the subject. Shri Rahul Matthan of Tri Legal Services prepared an approach paper for the legal framework for a proposed legislation on privacy. The approach paper is now being circulated for seeking opinions of the group of officers and is also being placed on the website of the Department of Personnel and Training for seeking public views on the subject. The Privacy India team at C.I.S responded to the approach paper and has called for the need for a more detailed study of statutory enforcement models and mechanisms in the creation of a privacy legislation.

1. What is privacy? 

a) In the approach paper, the definition of privacy is not consistent and the meanings are used interchangably. It is variously referred to as a right and an expectation. Also, we find that no real distinctions are being made between privacy, data protection, and security. As a result, the paper lays out an approach to a data protection legislation masquerading as a privacy legislation.  Thus, we find that there is a need to define and make consistent in the document, the language used to define privacy. 

b) CIS, drawing upon the definition of privacy used in the European Union,  understands privacy as the right of an individual to be free from unauthorised intrusion and the ability of that individual to control and disseminate information that identifies or characterizes the individual. We thus believe privacy is operative in these contexts: 

1. Physical - physical space, body, home, car, etc. 

2. Informational - Digital as well as Non-Digital (Information gathering, storage, retrieval, usage, transfer, disposal, etc). 

3. Intellectual -  Right to make decisions pertaining to oneself, to enjoy one's perspective and ideas. A violation in any of these contexts should be construed as a breach of privacy.

2. Is there a need for privacy protection? 

a) We agree that there is a pressing need for privacy protection in the context of the enhanced technological opportunities that have arisen in the past two decades for the exploitation of personal data. 

b) As the approach paper rightly concludes, these threats to privacy are magnified by initiatives that interlink databases – such as the UID project. 

c) However, we believe that privacy is not limited to data protection and would invite the Committee to consider ways in which it may broaden the ambit of its investigation. 

3. Is there a need for such legislation? 

a) We reject the “hybrid” approach being offered here. Previous experiences with Self Regulatory Organisations (SROs) in India (for eg. AMFI, MFIN) leaves us with little cause for optimism that they will be an effective guarantor of as sensitive a right as privacy. Curiously, the approach paper itself does not mention this “hybrid” aspect anywhere else in the document.  

b) We endorse the attempt to arrive through statute, at a minimal, though robust, horizontal guarantee of privacy that operates across sectors. Just as the parameters of the right to life and liberty are broad guidelines on one hand but have specific and intentional meanings, so should the right to privacy. 

4. Legislative Competence:  

We agree.

5. Is there a constitutional right to privacy?  

a) We agree that the Supreme Court has derived a constitutional right to privacy from Article 21 of the Constitution. 

b) However, the approach paper is factual incorrect in its assertion that “all available cases have been decided in the context of government action”. There is by now a sizeable amount of consumer case law  which deals with the issue of privacy between private individuals/entities. 

c) Most frequently, this issue has arisen the context of hospital/patient relationships and the courts have held the right to privacy as one that is not unqualified. 

d) Other common “non-government” arenas where courts have elaborated on the right to privacy include banking and telephony services. 

e) We feel that the Committee ought to inform itself more thoroughly about the developing jurisprudence on the right to privacy in India – both in the context of government and non-government actions.

6. Existing legislation: 

a) In addition to the IT Act, there are several statutes and subordinate legislation which safeguard an individual’s privacy in specified sectors such as banking, insurance, telephony etc. 

b) By neglecting them wholesale, we feel that the approach paper deprives itself of valuable contextual elaborations of the right to privacy in India. The case for a horizontal  right to privacy in India can be derived not merely from the inadequacies of the IT Act, but from the cumulative failings of all these numerous dispersed provisions. 

c) We agree that ITA does not provide sufficient protection to privacy, and that there is a need for specific legislation that addresses all aspects of privacy, but we would go much further than the current proposal. 

d) We suggest that in addition to the requirements listed for data security, a  full-fledged privacy legislation needs to include specific regulations on: gathering, retention, access, transfer, security, data quality, and individuals’ consent. 

e) Furthermore, the data protection component of the privacy legislation needs to include redress for breaches of data, and the individual must be informed when a data breach takes place and given access to sufficient information to identify who breached the privacy and how – as well as information about what data were compromised and ways to limit or undo the improper disclosure.. 

f) Generally speaking, a  privacy regime should work towards: 1. Increasing the protection of tangible and intangible possessions as well as personal data; 2. Increasing knowledge of privacy and empowering people to make  informed choices; 3. Making organizations more accountable for protecting privacy; 4. Compelling (through audits, sanctions, etc) organisations to improve security standards; 5. Increasing individuals’ confidence in privacy laws and the organisations protecting privacy. 

7. Potential Conflicts between Data Protection Legislation and other Laws: 

 We find that it would be useful if the laws that conflict with the data protection legislation are referenced in each section.

 7.1  Data Protection and the Right to Information

a) The argument that a privacy legislation would conflict with the RTI is somewhat overstated.  

b) Where the government has collected data from individual citizens, that information needs to be exempt from RTI disclosure unless an overriding public interest is demonstrated – which is the current position under the RTI Act.   

c) We believe, on the other hand, that public officials ought to be subject to scrutiny by virtue of the public office they hold and that they should be subject to transparency about certain aspects of their life which would not be applicable to the common man.  Information about tax filings, credit history, and financial records can help root out corruption, for example. 

d) The kinds of personal data that are broadcast in the transparency bulletins should be limited with specifics shared if need be on a case by case basis. 

e) As the approach paper itself mentions, the RTI Act is extremely sensitive to the issue of privacy and privacy is one of the most frequent grounds of refusal of data by public bodies. 

f) Rulings by various information appellate bodies under the RTI Act have done an admirable job of balancing issues of privacy against the public interest and the proposed privacy legislation ought not to disturb this careful balance. 

g) We recommend that the proposed privacy legislation contain a non-obstante clause that subordinates it to the provisions of the RTI Act. 

7.2 Data Protection and Credit Verification

a) We agree with the statement but believe the privacy issues that would come up are not limited to just credit verification. 

b) All aspects of data collection and handling for the financial sector should be looked into and statutes developed to deal with the sensitive nature of the data.  

c) This may include limitations on marketing efforts and disclosure to third-parties. 

7.3 Data Protection and Private Investigative Agencies

a) We believe that the private investigators should undergo licensure, and that the PI agencies should be regulated so that any kind of surveillance must comply with privacy protection laws. 

b) Judicial oversight should be required in order to take certain kinds of action (access to records, surveillance, monitoring, etc) by these agencies. 

7.4 Data Protection and National Security

a) We understand the conflict between the need for a government to ensure the security of its population with the need to protect privacy. 

b) We find the most effective resolution is for judicial oversight for some activities (monitoring, surveillance, access to personal records by law enforcement, etc) to be required. 

7.5  Data Protection vs. Transparency in Government

a) We feel that this section engages very sloppily with the issue of transparency/corruption in India. 

b) It completely ignores the history of the various struggles for transparency in government fought across India, that were aimed precisely at prodding the government out of its secretive shell. 

c) In doing so the approach paper risks retarding, at one stroke, all the advances made by these several movements over the past fifty years. 

d) The publication of lists of recipients/beneficiaries of schemes has  been one of the most hard won, and potent tools that has been used to mobilize collective action by locals against corrupt officials. 

e) We empathise with the approach paper’s aspiration that the government “rethink its approach to transparency”, but are skeptical that a new privacy law would, of all things, prompt such a transformative rethinking. We advise caution and certainly greater sensitivity in handling this issue. 

8.0 Privacy legislation in other countries:

a) We agree with the recommendations, but would include notification of breach: how, when, what and who. 

b) We believe that the auditing of companies is an important security and transparency mechanism that needs to be included, along with the ability to sanction offenders and methods of redressal for aggrieved parties. 

9.0  Proposed Framework for Privacy Legislation: 

a) Although India lacks a horizontal law of privacy, various sectoral laws currently function to provide a degree of protection. For instance, sectoral regulatory agencies such has TRAI, RBI and SEBI have periodically issued guidelines on privacy which are enforceable through tribunals and ombudsmen under the respective enactments. Professional bodies like the Medical Council and the Bar Council prescribe privacy and confidentiality norms which members of these bodies must adhere to. 

b) In this context, the approach paper’s suggestion of a “framework” followed by sectoral guidelines would appear to be no more than a duplication through statute of the extant state of  affairs. 

c) We would recommend instead, the provision in the act of a robust, general “right to privacy” which would provide a threshold level of protection to the individual. Sectoral guidelines on privacy could then be framed to operate in addition to existing  sectoral norms, thereby raising the bar of privacy in that particular sector. 

d) We also find the framework primarily targeted toward digital data protection alone, and it needs to address all forms of information and include personal and intellectual contexts.

9.1 Applicability

We endorse the approach paper’s recommendation that the proposed legislation apply both to private and public entities. However, we feel that this does not exhaust the issue of ‘applicability’. Specifically we invite the Committee’s attention to the following issues:

a) We believe that the data and the private information that are already in the possession of the government and public/private companies should come under the ambit of the legislation. I.e. it should be applicable to all data collected by any entity, regardless of the fact that such data is otherwise publicly obtainable.

b) We invite the Committee’s consideration on whether it would be wise to limit the applicability of the act to regulating the organized, systematic collection of large amounts of personal data by entities, however incorporated. This would, as the approach paper suggests, exempt from the purview of this Act, private and domestic collection of information. In addition it would exempt marginal collectors such as hobbyist website designers, academic researchers etc from the scope of this act. Remedies against these users would still remain, as they have thus far in Tort law. 

9.2 Data

While we acknowledge that certain kinds of information may be more sensitive than others, we feel that the approach paper has not adequately made use of this distinction in its later segments. Specifically we believe:

a) The distinction is useful to prescribe enahanced security precautions during the stage of data collection. For example, the collection of genetic data or HIV status of a person can be made subject to very stringent conditions compared to say, the collection of more mundane details like name, age. 

b) However, we believe the distinction is not useful if is used, say, to provide differentiated access/data security standards for the two types of information. Eg. If the law stipulated a lesser penalty for the exposure of personal data as opposed to sensitive data. Or if the law prescribed a lesser security standard for personal data compared to personal sensitive data. The threat posed by information depends heavily on the context in which it is used, and in the tragic aftermath of Godhra, even a list of names (which the approach paper has not regarded as ‘sensitive’) could be used to lethal purposes.

 9.3 Personal Data

We endorse the need expressed by the approach paper for a multilateral definition of the way in which information may identify a person

9.4 Personal Sensitive Data 

 See comments at 9.2 above  

9.5 Data Collection

a) We feel that while informed consent ought to be mandatory in all situations the mandatory requirement of informed ‘written’ consent could be confined only to collection of sensitive information and any information that is likely to be stored for longer durations than say, a week. 

b) This would exempt benign uses such as by academic researchers or hobbyist website designers or photographers who inadvertently collect small quantities of ‘personal data’. 

c) Simultaneously, more ‘industrial’ collectors of personal information such as telephone and insurance companies would be required to obtained written consent. Note that this would not exempt them from the requirement of observing standards of data security, but only free them of the obligation of having obtained written consent. 

d) It is important that this requirement would be in addition to but not diminish consent requirements under existing law. For instance, various judicial decisions and the NHRC have stipulated guidelines governing the administration of the polygraph test to an accused. These include the provision of legal assistance and the requirement that consent be recorded before a judge. The simple requirement of “Informed written consent” under the privacy act should not override more other rigorous judicial guidelines. 

e) As a overriding safeguard, we think that where “balancing interests” come into play, such  interest must first seek and obtain judicial approbation.

 9.6 Data Processing

a) We agree with the need to fix primary responsibility for data security on the data controller, however, 

b) it may be in the interest of the citizen/victim to stipulate that in the event of a breach by the data processor, she may prefer her remedy against either the data processor or the data controller. 

c) We reject the approach paper’s view that concessions need to be made “considering the population of India”. After all, considering this population, the very necessity of a privacy legislation itself may also have to “be considered”. 

9.7 Data Storage

a) We concur that data should be stored only until the time the purpose for which it was collected is achieved. 

b) Further, the Committee could consider introducing a presumption that in all cases, unless demonstrated otherwise, the purpose of data collection would be deemed to have been served within, say, 6 months from the date of collection. 

c) We believe that this could be strengthened by placing the onus on the data controller, in the event of any dispute, to prove that the stated purpose has not yet been achieved. Any data that are required for national security or for archival, etc should come under the scrutiny of the judiciary. 

d) We endorse the approach paper’s conservative stance on linking of databases. 

9.8 Data Security

a) We invite the Committee to explore the possibility of gradated data security standards depending on the size of the data collection and the sensitivity of the information held. 

b) This would ensure that different security standards would apply to, on the one hand, academic researchers and  hobbyist website designers who collect marginal data in small ephemeral collections, and on the other hand large insurance companies which maintain large perpetual data warehouses of personal information.  

9.9  Data Access

a) We agree that data subjects ought to have a ‘moral right’ that guarantees the integrity of data collected and maintained about them. 

b) We believe that the proposed legislation should provide a clear and speedy mechanism to activate this right. 

9.10 Cross Border Applicability and Transfer

a) We would argue that India does need comprehensive legislation and strong enforcement. Population size is not a reason for loose legislation. To the contrary, it buttresses the argument for urgent action to be taken, since the stakes are exponentially greater in a country where a billion people stand to lose their privacy compared to countries with populations numbering in the trifling millions. 

b) Furthermore, the benefits to international trade should be taken into consideration when determining the stringency of a data protection regime, and this should inform the terms of the statutes that are enacted. 

9.11 Exemptions

a) We believe that exemptions to the legislation should be carefully worded and where possible, permitted only through judicial oversight. 

b) Care must be taken to see that exemptions under the proposed legislation do not end up widening the scope of intrusion than allowable under existent law. eg. An exemption in the Privacy act on grounds of ‘national security’ should not permit wiretapping agencies to circumvent the due procedure requirements under the Telegraph Act or to violate principles of natural justice.

9.12 Automated Decision Making

a) We agree but we think that there is a present need for automated decision related laws since the technology is already in use in India and other countries. 

b) In particular, we would endorse the incorporation of provisions which would compel disclosure of the fact that automated decision making algorithms are being employed along with a synopsis of the logic of such algorithms. 

9.13 Regulatory Set Up

We believe that effective regulation and inexpensive, speedy redress are critical for the success of the proposed right to privacy legislation. We believe the approach paper, while admirable in the scope of the subject it covers, deals with this issue rather inadequately under the overbroad heading of “Regulatory Set up” .

a) At the outset we believe that standards-setting functions could be and ought to be separated from adjudicatory functions. This is a model that has proven successful in various other domains in India in the recent past (eg. TRAI/TDSAT and SEBI/SAT. ) and could be usefully imported in the present context 

b) Secondly, we we believe that the approach paper is not clear enough on whether civil or criminal penalties are intended. We believe that a judicious mix of both would be necessary in order to minimize the risk of individuals being needlessly harassed by enforcement agencies, whilst simultaneously dealing firmly with corporations and other entities whose violations of privacy threaten the greatest harm. We believe that the proposed legislation could be modeled along the lines of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the Motor Vehicles Act and similar legislations which provide a minimum assured relief immediately upon the establishment of a claim. 

c) Lastly, we firmly reject the approach paper’s proposal to merge the functions of the data regulator under the Privacy legislation with those of the Information Commissioners under the Right to Information Act. We believe that the Right to Information Act is a landmark legislation which has, in a short while, become a critical tool of empowerment in the hands of the citizens and civil service organizations. One of the most frequently cited reasons by which government departments refuse access to information under the RTI is on grounds of ‘privacy’. In most cases these turn out to be delaying tactics to shield the actions of a few corrupt officials from public scrutiny. The success of the RTI Act hinges on its interpretation and promulgation by officers who believe in the peremptory importance of openness of information in the public interest. The right to privacy demands an opposite orientation and the merging of the two in one officer would lead to an unsatisfactory implementation of both.  We believe, as indicated above, that privacy claims that conflict with a citizen’s exercise of her right to information are being resolved satisfactory by the information commissioners under the RTI Act at present and the proposed Privacy legislation should not disturb this.  


We commend the drafters of the approach paper for their having skillfully woven together the best international practices related to privacy, with an eye to specifics of the Indian situation. However we also feel that the Committee could have been better served by a more detailed study of statutory enforcement models and mechanisms that have succeeded in expanding the reach of remedies to Indians eg. the Consumer Protection Act, Motor Vehicles Act etc.



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