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NIC is rolling out vehicle tracking modules: here’s some food for thought

Tracking, license registration, traffic fine management and pollution control for public vehicles will soon be digital. But is data and privacy safe?

What is the news? The National Informatics Centre, the department tasked with developing and implementing IT systems in other Central and state government departments, has, in association with the transport ministry, come up with  four new digital initiatives related to vehicle tracking, license registration, traffic fine management and pollution control as part of its 75th Independence Day programme.

Why this matters? Tracking public service vehicles does not encroach on personal information and can turn out to be a good move for the government, provided that the local authorities are seen as equal stakeholders in the initiatives. Some of the primary uses could be to check for rash driving, reduce corrupt practices among bus and taxi drivers (which end up losing the local government lakhs in revenue), or calculate actual petrol consumption over a period. However, questions arise when considering who will be owning this data and if it could be sold or viewed by the private sector which could lead to predatory pricing across various services (such as insurance or even cab aggregators). Concerns also arise when considering that driving licenses which contain personal data would also be made online as part of the same overarching initiative.

The new initiatives under this programme are listed below:

Vehicle Location Tracking System (VLTS): “In the interest of public safety, the Government of India has mandated equipping all public vehicles with vehicle location tracking devices,” the NIC said in its announcement. As per the Motor Vehicles Act, the term “public service vehicle” covers “any motor vehicle used or adapted to be used for the carriage of passengers for hire or reward”. So theoretically, the scope of the VLTS initiative could go on to buses, taxis, trams and even autos.

According to the NIC, these vehicles would be fitted with GPS tracking devices capable of sending real-time machine-to-machine signals, recording location, speed, acceleration, altitude and other data. A panic button is equipped on the VLTS vehicles directly linked with the National Emergency Response System, with command centres being set up across the country to monitor these vehicles.

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Apparently, the project has been approved 18 states and union territories, with 116 manufacturers around the country fitting 7.28 lakh vehicles with this devices as of June 2022.

Vahan: Vahan is an Android application that brings services such as vehicle registration, permit, taxation and fitness check to the citizen’s smartphone. It is supposed to automate the aforementioned RTO-based services, while maintaining separate faceless implementation for individual citizens and businesses. The Vahan app will also feature personal vehicle location tracking and speed limiting module. Vehicle dealers and pollution control will also be connected on the Vahan network.

As of June 2022, Vahan has 29 crore registered vehicles, of which 1.55 crore units were registered between 2020 and 21. The project collected Rs 45,000 crores in revenue last year.

Sarathi: Sarathi is supposed to be a one stop work-flow based application for managing the various kinds of licenses issued to drivers all around the country. The app is customized to work in tandem with state-specific requirements and is set to cover driving and learner licenses for all kinds of vehicles as well as conductor and driving school management permits.

It must be noted that both the Vahan and Sarathi apps have been in the market since 2019 but in 2022, the NIC has vastly increased the scope of their operations.

e-Challan: Implemented in across 28 of the 36 states and union territories, the e-Challan module comes integrated with both the Sarathi and Vahan apps. It is supposed to provide live updates regarding the status of any traffic offence that the user might have committed. One is supposed to be able to pay their fine through the app and get a PDF copy of the challan (receipt) in return.

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Pollution under Control: Digital pollution control certificates come as a module in the aforementioned motor vehicle user applications. These certificates maintain real-time data on the audits of vehicles and can be used to register, renew certificates, appeal for a pollution check, pay fees, etc. from the user end.

Some food for thought: “Why is the government rolling out such an initiative?” is cybersecurity researcher and Delhi High Court lawyer Divyam Nandrajog’s first question when he went over the initiatives. He went on to explain that in order to pull off a project as comprehensive as VLTS would be a resource heavy task, as each public vehicle in the country would need to be fitted with trackers and set up towers to follow the tracked vehicles in real time. “In metros, these trackers can eat up a significant section of the city’s internet bandwidth,” he said. “The real question we should be asking is, will the move be cost effective? And how will the government recover this cost?”

Nandrajog also noted that since this is an inter-department operation, it would involve databases communicating with each other, not to mention that some of these databases such as Vahan and Sarathi would be storing personal information of registered users. “Hence it is imperative that these silos be be guarded heavily. A leak here can out the sensitive personal information of lakhs of citizens,” he said.

India has had a shady relationship with vehicle registration data: In the absence of any kind of data protection law, the Indian government has even monetized vehicle registration data in the past.

In 2019, the Minister of Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari responded to a Parliamentary question on details of data sold by the government “by providing access to Vahan and Sarathi database”, stating that the government got Rs 65 crore by selling data of approximately 25 crore vehicle registration records and 15 crore driving license records.

Gadkari also mentioned that 87 private companies and 32 government entities had been granted access to the data. Back then, the Vahan and Sarathi apps were just to maintain vehicle registration and licenses.

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