Pegasus rising: Data protection bill could save govt from accountability

Experts believe the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, in its current form, may not be a solution to alleged surveillance by the government as it exempts the latter from accountability

Representative photo: iStock

The Joint Committee of Parliament, examining the Personal Data Protection Bill, is slated to submit its report in the ongoing monsoon session of the House. However, the promotion of five of the committee members, to ministerial posts in the recent cabinet expansion has cast a shadow on the committee proceedings.

Committee chairperson Meenakshi Lekhi, Lok Sabha member Ajay Bhatt and Rajya Sabha members Rajeev Chandrashekar, Bhupender Yadav and Ashwini Vaishnaw have been inducted as ministers, thus ceasing to be a part of the committee that was formed in December 2019.

Much of what’s happening today in India, be it the Chinese App ban, tightening of e-commerce rules, the social and digital media rules, RBI barring Mastercard from issuing new cards in India, or even the recent snoopgate (hacking through Pagasus, a spying software developed by Israel’s NSO) where the Indian government is accused of spying on citizens, are all, in a way, linked to personal data protection. It shows why we need this legislation more than anything now.

Also read: Pegasus used to hack phones of Union ministers, Oppn leaders, journos

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The monsoon session of the Parliament that began on July 19 got adjourned multiple times as Opposition members protested over various issues including inflation, fuel price, farm laws and the Pegasus snooping row.

Experts believe the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, in its current form, may not be a solution to government surveillance as it exempts the Indian government from accountability. But they do believe that it could address other issues while calling for better surveillance reforms.

The draft data protection bill aims to safeguard the personal information, rights of individuals and obligates data processors to follow certain norms. It proposes restrictions on the use of personal information without their explicit consent and moots penalty for violations.

The panel, over a period of 20 months had 66 sittings, and held several meetings and summoned representatives of technology companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google and e-commerce major Amazon to present their view.

“Many things that are happening in the country relate to data protection. If the bill does not become a law, citizens will be affected. That said, the data protection bill does not have strong surveillance reform provision and it gives wide exemption to the government,” says Anushka Jain, an associate counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group that defends online freedom, privacy, and net neutrality in India. “The bill will not be helpful for the present situation on Pegasus hacking case,” she adds.

With regard to surveillance, different countries have different laws to check on the level of surveillance. Like the USA has strong civil rights protection and the European Union has General Data Protection Regulations. And as India does not address the surveillance issues in a robust manner unlike these countries, many are calling for surveillance reforms.

Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and founder of technology portal MediaNama, said the solution to government surveillance is not the privacy bill as it exempts the Indian government from accountability.

“We need surveillance reform. A law to bring accountability to surveillance,” Pahwa says. “Our intelligence agencies need to be held accountable to Parliament. Usage of such software against parliamentarians and Indian citizens needs to require judicial sanction and future declassification…” Pahwa said while expressing his view on the Pegasus issue.

“The cybersecurity policy is still stuck with the cabinet. We don’t even know what it looks like. The government needs to buck up on this count. What we need most of all is the disarmament of cyberspace, and especially making the sale of software such as Pegasus illegal, globally,” he added.

While the Indian government denied the allegation of snooping using Pegasus spyware, it said it was committed to ensuring the right to privacy to all its citizens as a fundamental right.

Also read: Pegasus scandal: Rahul Gandhi, Prashant Kishor on list of potential snoop targets

While the new chairperson, when appointed, may seek time to review the final report of the committee, Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla, earlier this month, however, while announcing the launch of a dedicated app for the House soon, said most of the work of the committee has been completed and that the appointment of a new chairperson will not affect the submission of the report. “No further time will be given for the submission of the report,” Birla had said.

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