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Delhi’s teachers protest, move court as Municipal Corporations push app-based attendance marking without privacy policy, data minimisation

What started out as a meeting between teachers and a mayor revealed key concerns on the usage, implementation and legality of an attendance app that is sans a privacy policy and not open source. 

Apne neeji phone se online hazri app download karne aur online teaching karne ke liye department ya koi bhi adhikari shikshakon ko badhya nahi kar sakta (No department or official can mandate a teacher to download an attendance app or take online classes from their personal phones),” Kuldeep Singh Khatri, president of Shikshak Nyay Manch Nagar Nigam (SNMNN) told an assembling of North Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) officers who he was meeting to discuss issues the corporation’s school teachers were facing – including an app that was threatening to cut down their already slim salaries.

On August 24, 20 people gathered at the posh conference room of NDMC Mayor Raja Iqbal Singh’s Civic Centre office to discuss issues the corporation’s school teachers were facing. Around them, the walls were adorned by at least 10 to 15 pictures of former mayors of the NDMC, while through the rest of the room ran a hollow square-shaped conference table. As Khatri finished talking, ending a rant against the threats of salary cuts being issued to the teachers despite their work during the pandemic, Singh asked him to talk softly. “Dheere boliye aap…mei bhi dheere bola raha hu. Achha lagta hai (Talk softy..I am also talking softly. It sounds better),” he said.  However, by the end of the 30-minute meeting, all Singh had agreed to was a periodic review to resolve the concerns of the teachers and to refer the matters to the concerned departments for review.

According to Khatri, this was the latest of several meetings the teachers body has had with the NDMC over the last three months since it started opposing an attendance app that was being mandated for them.

In 2019, the South (SDMC) and North Delhi Municipal Corporations launched an application called the ‘DMC Smart App’, to register attendance for staff capturing along with it their location and a photograph. While the app was not pushed among the teachers at the time, by late 2020 teachers of SDMC-run schools started receiving circulars from the civic body to download the app. By December 2020, the SDMC’s demand became stronger and more threatening.

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“The progress of marking attendance is not satisfactory even after three months. It is therefore decided that salary of employees not marking their attendance will not be released for the month of December 20, paid in January 21.” a copy of the circular, viewed by MediaNama, said. (Details of the circular are below)

The same month Nagar Nigam Shikshak Sangh (NNSS), a teachers union with members across the city, moved the Delhi High Court against the SDMC’s usage of the app. Now, 8 months later, the app’s usage has expanded to the East Delhi Municipal Corporation and the teaching staff of the NDMC have also started protesting the app after receiving similar notices threatening salary cuts if attendance is not marked on the app.

Features of the app

Available as an APK: The app, called ‘DMC Smart App’ is available as an Android application package (APK) file on the Municipal Corporation of Delhi’s website. It is not hosted as an app on the Google Play Store or Apple’s App Store.

Permissions it requires: To register the employee’s attendance it collects their location data and asks them to take a picture. According to teachers, it also asks for permission to access the phone’s storage and the location tracking takes place at all times.

Attendance history, supervisor’s access: The app can also show the attendance history of an employee and has a provision for supervisors to mark the attendance of their subordinates.

Contentions regarding the app

Across both the North and South municipal bodies, teachers have been protesting the usage of the app. While teachers under the SDMC have moved court, meetings have been taking place between representatives of the SNMNN teacher’s body and officers of the NDMC about the use of the app.

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Usage, implementation concerns of the teachers

Access to personal data: They have objected to the use of their personal devices for downloading and then using the app.

“These phones have our personal data, passwords, photographs, and bank details. We don’t mind using the app, so long as it isn’t on our personal device and is instead on a government-issued phone,” Vinay, head of Nigam Pratibha Vidyalaya and member of the SNMNN told MediaNama.

Vibha Singh, Senior Vice President of the NNSS told MediaNama about concerns that with the app collecting personal data with no privacy policy, it could endanger the women and senior citizens having to use the app in case the data is misused or compromised.

“If anyone hacks the app they would get access to all of their data- including our location which the app will track even if we are on leave,”  said Singh.

Demand for government-issued phones or tabs: According to Khatri, thousands of teachers had earlier this year written to the municipal corporations for government-issued tablets or smartphones. “Teachers don’t have smartphones yet we’ve had to conduct classes online through Google Meet and WhatsApp during the pandemic. Now they want us to download this app on our personal phones as well,” he said.

Lack of access to smartphones: Singh also raised the issue that very often even if a teacher has one smartphone in their house, they may not bring it to the school. “Online classes are happening everywhere, including in teachers’ homes. So we give our phones to our children so they can attend their classes,” she said.

Revert to older methods: Previously the municipalities would log teachers’ attendance through biometric scanning ( for schools run by SDMC) or through the NDMC online portal which could be accessed through the government-issued desktop at each school. According to Singh, those methods should continue. “We used to mark our attendance on the portal through the schools’ computer which collects the location as well. For this we would obviously have to be in school,” she said.

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Legal challenges to the app

Vivek Dixit, the lawyer representing the NNSS in their case against the app, has presented the following contentions to the app.

Violates Puttaswamy Vs. Union of India judgement:

According to Dixit, the app violates the triple test laid down by the landmark privacy judgement which was the legality or the existence of a law, needs defined in terms of a legitimate state aim, and proportionality or a rational nexus between the objects and the means adopted to achieve them.

No privacy policy:

Dixit notes that in the absence of a privacy policy it is not clear where the data is being stored and how the data is being processed. He also says that since the app requires access to personal information there is no clarity on who the teachers could approach in case the data collected is misused.

“How can you ask people to use their personal phone to download an app? You are asking me to download a random app, and I don’t know what you are taking from my phone,” he told MediaNama.

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No open-source code:

No relevant source code for the app has been released by the MCD. Referring to the government’s Policy on Adoption of Open Source Software for Government of India  Dixit said that they need the SDMC to submit an affidavit saying that that they are not in violation of it. The policy says that “Government of India shall endeavour to adopt Open Source Software in all e-Governance systems implemented by various Government organizations, as a preferred option in comparison to Closed Source Software.”

It also says that “The source code shall be available for the community/adopter/end-user to study and modify the software and to redistribute copies of either the original or modified software.”

Lack of consent:

The app does not take any consent from the employees and has been implemented through a government circular.

“App shouldn’t be an issue”: NDMC Mayor

On the sidelines of this meeting, MediaNama spoke with NDMC Mayor Raja Iqbal Singh about the issues raised by the teachers:

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On the teachers’ issues with the app.

Following the meeting, Singh said that the app shouldn’t really be an issue and indicated that this may be just a teething issue. “Initially, jo humare generation ke hote hai unhe dikat hoti hai par abhi ki generation boht tech savvy. Sab kuch online ho raha hai, so shouldn’t be an issue,” he said. (People from my generation aren’t tech savvy, but the current generation is. Since everything is moving online, this shouldn’t be an issue.)

On the app being off app stores.

At first he said, that the relevant departments have been asked to look into it. When MediaNama asked again he said, “Department nei kuch kiya hai toh soch samajh kar hi kiya hoga.” (If the department has done something, they must have thought it through).

On the court case against the SDMC:

According to Singh, the app should not have any issues in the Delhi High court, this is because even the courts have gone all online with virtual hearings and sessions.

Previous attempts at tracking employees digitally

Earlier, various municipal corporations and departments under state governments have enforced measures to track their employees – many of these measures have received backlash from the employees.

In June, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) hired under the National Health Mission in Haryana were reportedly protesting an app, that they’re being required to use, for tracking their work and their GPS location out of concerns of surveillance.

In October 2020, sanitation workers in Chandigarh were tracked by their supervisors through GPS-enabled smartwatches.

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In May 2019, Outlook magazine reported how private companies were using geo-tagging to track their employees

 

Text of the SDMC circular dated December 22, 2020: 

All HODs/Zonal DCs/DDOs are requested to refer to IT Department circular No. F.DIT/2020/SDMC/D-351 dated 4th September 2020 on the above noted subject.

The progress of marking attendance is not satisfactory even after three months. It is, therefore, decided by the competent authority that salary of employees not marking their attendance will not be released for the month of December 20 paid in January 21.

I T Department is requested to ensure that online salary bills of employees, who are not marking their attendance, are not generated in the Pay Roll System. Further, DDOs drawing salary bills will certify on the bill that salary of only those employees who are marking their attendance in the mobile app is being drawn.

This is issued with the approval of Commissioner.

Also read:

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Written By

I cover health and education technology for MediaNama. Reach me at anushka@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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