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How to comply with India’s new data protection law: Chief Privacy Officers share their views

What should companies’ compliance to India’s Data Protection look like? Privacy Officers of leading companies weighed in on the compliance debate at #PrivacyNama2023

What are the first steps a data protection officer should take, how should a company determine purpose limitation, how to engage with different stakeholders of the company, why is it important to view privacy as part of the DNA of a company, what steps should a company’s board take to support their data protection officer (DPO), and how to comply with data protection laws of various countries: these are some of the questions answered by chief privacy officers of various companies at MediaNama’s PrivacyNama 2023 conference held on October 26-27.

This year’s conference was focused on understanding how to comply with India’s Digital Personal Data Protection (DPDP) Act, 2023. The Act requires companies to implement various measures such as seeking the consent of users before collecting personal data, processing this data only for specified purposes, deleting personal data once the purpose is served, implementing safeguards to prevent data breaches, etc. Larger companies will also have to appoint a Data Protection Officer and auditor and carry out impact assessments. You can read more about all these obligations here.

Also Read: Summary: India’s Digital Personal Data Protection (DPDP) Act, 2023

The speakers in the Chief Privacy Officers Roundtable were Jagannath PV, Chief Privacy Officer, LTIMindtree; Vasudha Gupta, Chief Privacy Officer, Unlimit; and Bharat Saraf, Director, Privacy, PhonePe. The session was moderated by Rahul Narayan, Partner, Chandhiok and Mahajan.

This discussion was organised with support from Meta, PhonePe, Google, and Salesforce and in partnership with CUTS, and the Centre for Communication Governance.

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What are the first steps that a data protection officer should take?

Bharat Saraf and Vasudha Gupta laid out the following steps that a data protection officer should take from the get-go:

  1. Explain what personal information is to the different stakeholders in the company: “On day zero, I think I had to sit down with each and every stakeholder just to explain to them what is personal information,” Saraf said. “There were random questions like, does email constitute personal information? Is mobile number personal information? Because those are random 10 digits.”
  2. Build a privacy program: Look at data protection more as a design and collaborative approach rather than a compliance approach (more on this below) and build a privacy program based on this idea. “To comply with any data protection law, it’s very important that you have a program in place, you have a set of activities, processes and policies in place, which then support you to bring in things like privacy by design, regular training for the employees, etc,” Gupta said.
  3. Engage with different stakeholders in the company: Data Protection Officers (DPOs) must engage with different stakeholders in the company to create awareness for others as well as themselves. “If they [stakeholders] don’t know what a DPO is, who that person is, they are not going to be able to bring in things like privacy by design. They need to be able to reach out to me, they need to know that the DPO function is ready to support them. And more than that, we need to understand what they are doing,” Gupta said.
  4. Learn details about the data processed by the company: “I think the most important function that we have to undertake is knowing the data, where it is in the system, how it is being processed, and where it is being stored. Without knowing where my data is sitting in the system, I cannot put any control or process or policy and ensure its implementation.” There are two ways to go about this: use a data discovery service provided by some vendor or engage in stakeholder engagement with different teams in the company to understand more about the data they process, Gupta elaborated.
  5. Improve user-facing documentation: “How you’re taking the consent, what your notices are saying, how they are built, whether they are concise. I think in my experience, I’ve seen a lot of notices being extremely lengthy with a lot of legalese. I think our day-to-day job should be to simplify those,” Gupta said.

Also Read: Who Should Be Asked To Give Consent On Behalf Of A Child? Speakers Debate During #PrivacyNama2023

Why privacy should be part of the DNA of a company and not just a compliance issue:

Both Jagannath P.V. and Bharat Saraf spoke at length about how privacy should be a part of the DNA of the company and not just be incorporated for the sake of compliance.

“The minute you start looking at it as compliance, it becomes a tick in the checkbox, right? And that should not be the approach. […] So if an organization adopts privacy by design, you are adhering to privacy laws as well as taking measures before something happens.” – Jagannath P.V.

While it was initially seen just as a compliance issue, the way it has evolved in jurisdictions around the world like the EU and Australia, it is now becoming more than just a compliance requirement, Saraf said. “Especially from an Indian standpoint, I think it is slowly moving from compliance to being the DNA of an organization because it is going to be a differentiator for every business to be privacy compliant and say that we are the leaders in privacy,” he added.

Jagannath explained two concepts: privacy by default and privacy by design. “As an example, when you roll out an application, there are certain measures that should have been there by default. So it could be password protection. And a strong password protection, that should be by default. And certain aspects should come in by design. So what are those aspects? Granular consent management. And then from a technology perspective, you bring in the aspects of encryption, pseudonymization, anonymization,” Jagannath explained.

How to ensure you’re not seen as the villain putting a stop to all interesting new things because they are not data-compliant?

Bharat Saraf opined that the way to avoid being seen as someone hindering initiatives being developed by a company is to collaborate with the different teams. “So, whether that be a sales and marketing team, an engineering team, a business team, a product team. So you need to have that collaboration with each of these particular team members.”

“For example, if there’s a product manager who is thinking about building a particular product, giving him insights as to what sort of data is he trying to collect? How is he trying to protect that data? How is he trying to share that data either internally with the group entities or externally with third parties? What is the mechanism to retain that data or delete that data? So those insights are very much required in the collaborative process that you work back with every particular team with every particular manager,” Saraf elaborated.

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Jagannath P.V. talked about the importance of privacy heads playing a collaborative function rather than just a compliance function.

“The minute you say it’s a compliance function, they’ll take two steps back and say you’re always trying to put roadblocks to what I’m trying to do. A classic case could be sales and marketing. They always want more and more and more data, but how they get their data, they’re not interested because they want to reach out to as many people as possible. […]  But you change that game, and then you tell them this is not the way to do it, you should probably approach this differently. ” — Jagannath P.V.

How do you determine the purpose limitation for the data collected by your company?

An audience member asked the panellists how a company determines the purpose limitation of the data they collect. “Who does this assessment? How do you communicate this to your organization? Is it just a matter of having enough on the book to say that this is also necessary or is it an actual clinical exercise to determine that this data element is for this?”

Bharat Saraf explained that the purpose limitation will be based on the governance framework that an organization will define internally. “So what does that mean is, say, for example, we are a payments app and we are processing payments of our consumers who are landing onto our application and creating accounts, etc. So we will, as an organization, have to define what are the purposes for which we will require the different data elements for processing payments. If there are additional purposes or additional data elements for which there are separate purposes, we will have to carve that out separately in the privacy notice with granular consent.”

The governance framework itself should have certain principles, Saraf added. “So principally, as an organization, do you want to collect a certain amount of data for a particular purpose? And does it fit within your ethical and moral considerations as an organization? So those are the sorts of determinations that the governance framework will have to put in place.”

What’s the role of a company’s board in enabling data protection officers to do their work?

According to Bharat Saraf, company boards should grant their data protection officers the following:

  1. Independence: “Independence of the privacy function. Clearly understanding that security and privacy are two different facets and two different functions that need to operate independently and separately. Of course, there will be overlaps, but they have to be independent.”
  2. Privacy in the DNA of the company: “As I said, privacy has to be in the DNA of the organization. And that is only possible if there’s a tone from the top, from the senior leadership.”
  3. Budget: “I think the allocation of an appropriate budget, considering especially privacy compliances is now at the forefront.”

Jagannath P.V. added the following to the list:

  1. Invest in technology: “Many organizations still believe in Excel spreadsheets and do a lot of privacy compliances in spreadsheets,” but they should instead invest in technology such as a preference management centre.

What guidance do data protection officers want from the Data Protection Board of India?

Jagannath P.V. and Vasudha Gupta laid out the following wishes:

  1. Guidelines: Both Jagannath and Gupta asked for guidelines from the regulator. “I think if we take the UK authority, ICO, they have templates from how to record a processing activity to a DPA to even checking the maturity of your compliance. So that is the granularity that they bring in for the organizations there. And if we don’t have that in India, what will happen here is a huge startup ecosystem is not being supported. Not everybody has the budget for an experienced DPO,” Gupta said.
  2. Bring in obligations for data processors: “Please bring in processor obligations. Because if the processor does not have regulatory obligations, they will take things lightly. Unfortunately, the fiduciaries have to start leaving aside the smaller processors because they will sign a contract, but will they be able to abide by the regulatory norms? Because you as a data fiduciary are going to be completely held accountable for data breaches,” Jagannath suggested. “I think what is needed in India is data fiduciaries should help the small data processors to align with the law. […] Instead of just a contract, we should kind of guide them,” he added.
  3. Awareness: Jagannath opined that the regulator has to bring awareness about the law to Indian citizens and the entire ecosystem, without which the law cannot be implemented effectively.

How to create policies that take into account all the data protection laws of different countries?

Vasudha Gupta explained that companies need to adopt a certain framework as a starting point and then fine-tune or make adaptations according to local laws. In her company’s case, they adopted the GDPR as the baseline because the company is headquartered in the EU.

“When I’m looking at 12 countries, I need a standardized framework. And that framework can either be GDPR or it could be something like ISO 27701. What I need to create is a base and then from there, we go on to map any local deviations. For example, let’s pick up India. India has this data localization circular from RBI. We look at it as a separate compliance that needs to be done,” Gupta elaborated.

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Why is it important to get externally audited?

Jagannath P.V. spoke about the importance of getting external audits done in response to a question from the audience on how a user can know if a company is protecting their data according to the data protection law. “If I sign up for a website which says that my data will not be shared with anyone else. Now, how will I know that the company is actually following what it is saying,” the audience member asked.

Under the DPDP Act, significant data fiduciaries are required to conduct periodic audits, but Jagannath opined that all data fiduciaries should do so. “It is a good option to audit themselves and to get audited from external parties. This is when you actually find out these nuances. Otherwise, internal audits only give you exposure to certain aspects.”

How to handle old personal data collected before the DPDP Act goes into effect?

Jagannath suggested that data of customers not interested in the company should be deleted. “If somebody has not interacted with you for three years, that means they’re not really interested in hearing from you. So delete all that old data. It will reduce so much of the data that you have.”

Bharat Saraf sought more clarification from the government on how personal data already collected by a company should be dealt with. “How do we contact the data principals from whom we have collected the data previously? Can we go ahead and collect additional forms of data elements like email addresses or mobile numbers to contact them? Second, more importantly, if the data principal does not respond, can we continue to use and process that data unless they opt out?” Saraf asked.

Why data protection officers should understand technology even if they are lawyers?

Jagannath, who was the only non-lawyer on the panel, spoke about the importance of lawyers understanding technology. He explained that the privacy head role is generally treated as a compliance role, but lawyers who serve as privacy heads need to also understand technology to perform their role effectively.

“I would vouch that at least you should get a view of what technology is so that you will not unnecessarily get taken for a ride. […] When you go back to your ecosystem and tell them this is what you need to do. And then when they respond to you with an answer, you should be able to evaluate that answer. So, unless you understand technology, you will not be able to evaluate that answer.” — Jagannath P.V

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