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Building a Responsible Cyber Society…Since 1998

The news report that Personal profiles of 50 million Face Book users was collected and unauthorizedly used to help Trump win an election has opened  a new debate on Privacy and Data Protection in India. BJP and Congress parties are fighting on TV to blame each other that they are also indulging in a similar misuse of personal data while the local subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica (CA) which is the firm accused of the misuse claims to have served both BJP and Congress in different elections.

Much of the debate that is happening in this connection appears to be dishonest and hypocritical and the bluff has to be called.

We must first recognize that the CA is supposed to have collected the data through an App which was voluntarily downloaded by users who gave a consent for the access of their personal information. The person who collected the information based on the consent provided used it as a data for some kind of research for targeted advertising. The research was bought by Trump’s campaign managers and hopefully he was benefited.

Just as in India anything done by Modi is objected to, the Anti Trump brigade is accusing as if US election was tampered because of the profiling of the consumer research company and the targeted advertising for which it was used. Even if the firm had done a “Psychological Profiling” from the data available, as long as the data was in the public domain or out of an informed consent, there is no breach of Privacy. There are FinTech companies who do data analytics for fixing credit limits and if data analytics is used to create innovative advertising, it is neither a surprise nor some thing to be scoffed at.

This sort of data collection from public resources or from informed consent cannot be objected to just because we donot like Mr Trump winning.

If there is any real objection, one has to go into the fact of whether the “Informed Consent” was actually through a fraud and if so the data collector namely the British academic “Aleksandr Kogan” has to be brought to book.

Presently all Privacy Laws place faith on such consents. But if the Data Collector breaches the agreement and sells the data to another person who uses it for a purpose other than the purpose for which it was provided, it has to be objected to only on grounds of “Breach of Contract, Breach of trust” etc.

As regards the third party who bought to the data, data protection acts need to impose a “Due Diligence” obligation to disclose and get consent from the data vendor that the purchased data can be used for a specific purpose. Since “Advertising” is a legitimate purpose, if the data collector offers a data for advertising to an advertiser and the advertiser may  buy it under the premise that the data subject must have provided the necessary consent.

Is the secondary data user expected to check if the original consent provided to the data collector permits  such use or not is a matter yet to be clearly defined in law though it could be an ethical and moral issue. Also in many cases, even the buyer may not be aware how exactly he is going to use the data and how he can benefit from it. He may be simply buying it speculatively and discover some value added derivatives out of it which he may trade.

It is therefore hypocritical for us to express surprise that FB data could be used for profiling and profiled information can be used for advertising and such advertising could be for political campaigns. All this has to be expected in the era of Big Data anaytics and Artificial Inteligence.

In fact while the laws or privacy so far have missed the need to impose “Due Diligence” by the secondary user of personal data and this can be taken note of and included in the Indian Data Protection Laws, we can draw attention to Section 66B of the ITA 2008 which provides a possibility for “Stretching the legislative intent indicated in the section” to cover the misuse of data. Section 66B is actually meant for punishing the use of stolen computers and mobiles and uses the term “dishonestly receives and retains any stolen Computer Resources”. If we can consider data as a computer resource and the act of use of data for a purpose other than what it was meant as “Stealing”, then Section 66B can be stretched to the data misuse scenario though it is not recommended.

May be the Justice Srikrishna panel may include a clause that

“Any user of personal data shall exercise due diligence to ensure that the purpose for which it may be used is consistent with the consent provided”

Perhaps this is the lesson we can take out of this incident apart from what we have already discussed as to the need of an intermediary called “Data Trust” in the Data Protection environment.


As the Government of India conducting nationwide public consultation programs on the Data Protection Law proposed to be drafted on the basis of the Justice Srikrishna Committee, I would like to place before the ministry, some of my key ideas.

Big Idea 1: Data Trusts

The global regime of data protection including the EU GDPR recognizes the role of

  1. a Data Protection Authority for the nation,
  2. Data Controllers who collect data from the subject and/or determine how the personal data is to be used,
  3. Data Processors who process personal data on the instructions of the Data Controller
  4. Data Protection officers at the industry level as compliance officers.

I propose a new category of agency called “Data Trust” which operates between the Data Subject and the Data Collector and works as an escrow agent for the personal data of the individual. It will be a specialised institution which

  1. has the necessary wherewithal to secure the data entrusted to it by the public
  2. has the ability to classify the personal data entrusted to it by the public into different data category packages such as “Basic”, “Basic-identity”,”Sensitive identity”, “Confidential” \or such other categories as they may chose to logically group
  3. has the ability to decode the consent forms and privacy notices of data collectors and grade the data controllers
  4. has the ability to determine which category of data is required to be supplied to which category of data controller
  5. has the ability to process a realtime request from the data subject to supply appropriate data to the data collector during a service registration process
  6. is registered with the Data protection authority
  7. is subject to being reviewed both by the strength of their performance and an audit by the authority
  8. is able to keep an arms length relationship with the Data collectors
  9. is able to monetize the data for the benefit of the data subject
  10. is able to issue a pseudonomization Id to its members which can be used instead of the real information when personal data is to be provided to data collectors.

The creation of this intermediary would be a unique suggestion that will make Indian law different from the rest of the world and meet the requirements of our country where there are a large number of less literate persons operating mobiles.

Big Idea 2: Jurisdictional Umbrella

Since Data Protection is a global concept and just as India is imposing responsibilities under Indian law, many of the Indian processors are already under obligation to international data protection agencies including GDPR authorities where huge penalties are likely to be imposed on the Indian companies through contractual obligations.

Indian law therefore has to also decide on the jurisdiction of the proposed law and how it will handle the disputes arising between Indian processors (or controllers) with the GDPR counterparts.

It is proposed that Indian law is made primarily applicable to the Indian Citizens for the protection of their rights on personal information privacy.

Impact of this law on non citizens arising due to the collection of their personal data during their activities which come under the Indian legal jurisdiction is not an obligation of the country but could be accepted in the interest of projecting India as a country that can be trusted for data protection for cross border transactions.

However, when it comes to enforcement of the rights of any foreign agency including private citizens as well as GDPR authorities or even the Contractual beneficiaries aborad, on any Indian Citizen or Indian Data Controller or Data Processor, it should be mandatory that the dispute is resolved only with the involvement of the Indian Data Protection Authority.

Indian Data Protection Authority shall be the sole adjudicating authority for all disputes in which an Indian Citizen or an Indian Corporate or an Indian Government agency is a party.

Big Idea 3: Reciprocal Enforcement Rights

Recognition of any data protection law of any country outside India shall be only on a reciprocal basis where equal rights are available from the other country which may include

a) Enforcement of the privacy rights of an Indian Citizen or a Company in the foreign jurisdiction

b) Enforcement of penalty of any description on an Indian Citizen or a Company vis a vis similar rights for the Indian companies or individuals on the foreign citizens and companies.

I urge the Ministry to incorporate the above three ideas into the proposed law in appropriate terms.