Ex-SC judge BN Srikrishna calls for strong personal data protection law, warns of Orwellian situation if bill is passed

Justice BN Srikrishna said a strong personal data protection law is necessary to protect the public and that unless it is put in place 'there's no knowing for what purpose data will be used, for what purpose it will be subjected to analytics.'

FP Staff May 12, 2020 07:09:34 IST
Ex-SC judge BN Srikrishna calls for strong personal data protection law, warns of Orwellian situation if bill is passed

In the backdrop of the furore over the Centre's Aarogya Setu app during the coronavirus pandemic, Justice BN Srikrishna has called for a personal data protection law, describing the bill being circulated in in Parliament as 'very weak' and warning of an 'Orwellian 1984-like situation' if it is passed.

Justice (Retd) BN Srikrishna made the comments while participating in a webinar Sunday with advocate Harish Salve and ex-RBI governor Dr Urjit Patel entitled HungerTalks: 50 Days that Turned India. The discussion was moderated by Captain Raghu Raman.

HungerTalks is a web series organised by the NGO Yuva in order to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.

The app, which uses cellphones' GPS and Bluetooth to ascertain if an individual has come into contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, has been downloaded approximately 90 million times over the past two weeks.

It has been at the centre of a firestorm ever since French ethical hacker Elliot Alderson flagged "security issues" with it on 6 May and former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi on 2 May called it a "sophisticated surveillance system" on Twitter. Privacy advocates have also raised alarms and called for legislation with a 'sunset clause' to curb misuse.

"It is necessary to collect data during the coronavirus crisis because without analysing data you have no way of knowing where pandemic will strike next, the level of contamination, the way the curve will behave. The collection of data enriches and empowers the State to monitor the disease. If the data is collected during pandemic and then deleted after the pandemic, there can be no objection," the retired judge said, although he did not directly refer to the app.

Some public and private organisations have made the app mandatory for their employees and the government is reportedly considering making it compulsory for those taking flights.

However, without a strong personal data protection law in place to protect the public "there's no knowing for what purpose data will be used, for what purpose it will be subjected to analytics" Justice Srikrishna added.

"Every time there's a situation like a war or an emergency, the State takes all the power into its hands. In the absence of such a mechanism, we are going to be in a conundrum," Justice Srikrishna said.

'Need to get real'

The bill Justice Srikrishna is referring to, The Personal Data Protection Bill, was cleared by the Union Cabinet in December 2019 and tabled in Parliament that same month. It is currently being considered by a Joint Parliamentary Committee.

ExSC judge BN Srikrishna calls for strong personal data protection law warns of Orwellian situation if bill is passed

File image of Justice BN Srikrishna. YouTube

Salve, speaking on the concept of privacy in India, said the country needed to 'get real and revisit it'.

"We need a completely different mechanism in India because for the first time a lot of data is going into private hands. This may be an occasion to create a regulatory mechanism outside the courts, outside the government control system, to allow monetisation of data in a regulated fashion and to allow people to keep an oversight that data only to that extent and need is kept and the rest is gotten rid off. In India, you're always safer with data in private hands," Salve said.

Justice Srikishna also said it is time to have virtual courts and that the pandemic "has given us a chance to reevaluate,  reorient our thinking not towards just life in general but also our chosen professions."

Indeed, in an 11 April suo motu order, the apex court set guidelines for courts to function through video-conferencing during the pandemic.

'What next?"

India is well into the third phase of the lockdown, with curbs being eased except in containment zones. The Indian Railways started taking online bookings at 6 pm today (after a brief hiccup) and limited passenger trains are set to run from 12 May.

Crowds have thronged liquor stores, vehicles have slowly returned to roads and ride-sharing platforms resumed services. And yet, the question remains: When will things go back to normal? Will there even be a normal to return to?

Urjit Patel, speaking on the uncertainty that Indian society is facing due to the coronavirus crisis, said everyone is wondering what happens next but that prognostication, in this context, is difficult due to five  factors: Behaviour of the  virus, a timeline for effective treatment, a timeline for a safe and effective vaccine, government rules and regulations and their effectiveness and lastly, behaviour of citizens.

"We have some idea how people will behave, but we are at the beginning of this crisis and journey," Patel said.  "We have already seen people within and across countries are behaving differently with regard to the crisis.

With inputs from PTI

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