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How function of state may limit informed consent: Examining Clause 12 of the Data Protection Bill

The collective implication of leaving out ‘proportionality’ from Clause 12 is to provide very wide discretionary powers to the state.

This is the first of a two-part series by Amber Sinha. 

In 2018, hours after the Committee of Experts led by Justice Srikrishna Committee released their report and draft bill, I wrote an opinion piece providing my quick take on what was good and bad about the bill. A section of my analysis focused on Clause 12 (then Clause 13) which provides for non-consensual processing of personal data for state functions. I called this provision a ‘carte-blanche’ which effectively allowed the state to process a citizen’s data for practically all interactions between them without having to deal with the inconvenience of seeking consent. My former colleague, Pranesh Prakash pointed out that this was not a correct interpretation of the provision as I had missed the significance of the word ‘necessary’ which was inserted to act as a check on the powers of the state. He also pointed out, correctly, that in its construction, this provision is equivalent to the position in European General Data Protection Regulation (Article 6 (i) (e)), and is perhaps even more restrictive.

While I agree with what Pranesh says above (his claims are largely factual, and there can be no basis for disagreement), my view of Clause 12 has not changed. While Clause 35 has been a focus of considerable discourse and analysis, for good reason, I continue to believe that Clause 12 remains among the most dangerous provisions of this bill, and I will try to unpack here, why.

The Data Protection Bill 2021 has a chapter on the grounds for processing personal data, and one of those grounds is consent by the individual. The rest of the grounds deal with various situations in which personal data can be processed without seeking consent from the individual. Clause 12 lays down one of the grounds. It allows the state to process data without the consent of the individual in the following cases —

a) where it is necessary to respond to a medical emergency
b) where it is necessary for state to provide a service or benefit to the individual
c) where it is necessary for the state to issue any certification, licence or permit
d) where it is necessary under any central or state legislation, or to comply with a judicial order
e) where it is necessary for any measures during an epidemic, outbreak or public health
f) where it is necessary for safety procedures during disaster or breakdown of public order

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In order to carry out (b) and (c), there is also the added requirement that the state function must be authorised by law.

Twin restrictions in Clause 12

The use of the words ‘necessary’ and ‘authorised by law’ is intended to pose checks on the powers of the state. The first restriction seeks to limit actions to only those cases where the processing of personal data would be necessary for the exercise of the state function. This should mean that if the state function can be exercised without non-consensual processing of personal data, then it must be done so. Therefore, while acting under this provision, the state should only process my data if it needs to do so, to provide me with the service or benefit. The second restriction means that this would apply to only those state functions which are authorised by law, meaning only those functions which are supported by validly enacted legislation.

What we need to keep in mind regarding Clause 12 is that the requirement of ‘authorised by law’ does not mean that legislation must provide for that specific kind of data processing. It simply means that the larger state function must have legal backing. The danger is how these provisions may be used with broad mandates. If the activity in question is non-consensual collection and processing of, say, demographic data of citizens to create state resident hubs which will assist in the provision of services such as healthcare, housing, and other welfare functions; all that may be required is that the welfare functions are authorised by law.

Scope of privacy under Puttaswamy

It would be worthwhile, at this point, to delve into the nature of restrictions that the landmark Puttaswamy judgement discussed that the state can impose on privacy. The judgement clearly identifies the principles of informed consent and purpose limitation as central to informational privacy. As discussed repeatedly during the course of the hearings and in the judgement, privacy, like any other fundamental right, is not absolute. However, restrictions on the right must be reasonable in nature. In the case of Clause 12, the restrictions on privacy in the form of denial of informed consent need to be tested against a constitutional standard. In Puttaswamy, the bench ​was ​not ​required ​to ​provide ​a ​legal ​test ​to ​determine ​the ​extent ​and ​scope ​of the ​right ​to ​privacy, but they do provide sufficient ​guidance ​for ​us ​to ​contemplate ​how ​the ​limits ​and ​scope ​of ​the ​constitutional ​right ​to ​privacy ​could ​be ​determined ​in ​future ​cases.

The Puttaswamy judgement clearly states that “the right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution.” By locating the right not just in Article 21 but also in the entirety of Part III, the bench clearly requires that “the drill of various Articles to which the right relates must be scrupulously followed.” This means that where transgressions on privacy relate to different provisions in Part III, the different tests under those provisions will apply along with those in Article 21. For instance, where the restrictions relate to personal freedoms, the tests under both Article 19 (right to freedoms) and Article 21 (right to life and liberty) will apply.

In the case of Clause 12, the three tests laid down by Justice Chandrachud are most operative —
a) the existence of a “law”
b) a “legitimate State interest”
c) the requirement of “proportionality”.

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The first test is already reflected in the use of the phrase ‘authorised by law’ in Clause 12. The test under Article 21 would imply that the function of the state should not merely be authorised by law, but that the law, in both its substance and procedure, must be ‘fair, just and reasonable.’ The next test is that of ‘legitimate state interest’. In its report, the Joint Parliamentary Committee places emphasis on Justice Chandrachud’s use of “allocation of resources for human development” in an illustrative list of legitimate state interests. The report claims that the ground, functions of the state, thus satisfies the legitimate state interest. We do not dispute this claim.

Proportionality and Clause 12

It is the final test of ‘proportionality’ articulated by the Puttaswamy judgement, which is most operative in this context. Unlike Clauses 42 and 43 which include the twin tests of necessity and proportionality, the committee has chosen to only employ one ground in Clause 12. Proportionality is a commonly employed ground in European jurisprudence and common law countries such as Canada and South Africa, and it is also an integral part of Indian jurisprudence. As commonly understood, the proportionality test consists of three parts —

a) the limiting measures must be carefully designed, or rationally connected, to the objective
b) they must impair the right as little as possible
c) the effects of the limiting measures must not be so severe on individual or group rights that the legitimate state interest, albeit important, is outweighed by the abridgement of rights.

The first test is similar to the test of proximity under Article 19. The test of ‘necessity’ in Clause 12 must be viewed in this context. It must be remembered that the test of necessity is not limited to only situations where it may not be possible to obtain consent while providing benefits. My reservations with the sufficiency of this standard stem from observations made in the report, as well as the relatively small amount of jurisprudence on this term in Indian law.

The Srikrishna Report interestingly mentions three kinds of scenarios where consent should not be required — where it is not appropriate, necessary, or relevant for processing. The report goes on to give an example of inappropriateness. In cases where data is being gathered to provide welfare services, there is an imbalance in power between the citizen and the state. Having made that observation, the committee inexplicably arrives at a conclusion that the response to this problem is to further erode the power available to citizens by removing the need for consent altogether under Clause 12. There is limited jurisprudence on the standard of ‘necessity’ under Indian law. The Supreme Court has articulated this test as ‘having reasonable relation to the object the legislation has in view.’ If we look elsewhere for guidance on how to read ‘necessity’, the ECHR in Handyside v United Kingdom held it to be neither “synonymous with indispensable” nor does it have the “flexibility of such expressions as admissible, ordinary, useful, reasonable or desirable.” In short, there must be a pressing social need to satisfy this ground.

However, the other two tests of proportionality do not find a mention in Clause 12 at all. There is no requirement of ‘narrow tailoring’, that the scope of non-consensual processing must impair the right as little as possible. It is doubly unfortunate that this test does not find a place, as unlike necessity, ‘narrow tailoring’ is a test well understood in Indian law. This means that while there is a requirement to show that processing personal data was necessary to provide a service or benefit, there is no requirement to process data in a way that there is minimal non-consensual processing. The fear is that as long as there is a reasonable relation between processing data and the object of the function of state, state authorities and other bodies authorised by it, do not need to bother with obtaining consent.

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Similarly, the third test of proportionality is also not represented in this provision. It provides a test between the abridgement of individual rights and legitimate state interest in question, and it requires that the first must not outweigh the second. The absence of the proportionality test leaves Clause 12 devoid of any such consideration. Therefore, as long as the test of necessity is met under this law, it need not evaluate the denial of consent against the service or benefit that is being provided.

The collective implication of leaving out ‘proportionality’ from Clause 12 is to provide very wide discretionary powers to the state, by setting the threshold to circumvent informed consent extremely low. In the next post, I will demonstrate the ease with which Clause 12 can allow indiscriminate data sharing by focusing on the Indian government’s digital healthcare schemes.

*

Amber Sinha is the Executive Director of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS). Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of MediaNama. 

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