The Metaverse and its Numerous Concerns

There is a lot of buzz being generated around the “Metaverse,” which can be defined as a virtual reality-based shared digital world in which users (through their “avatars”) can enjoy three-dimensional, multi-sensory experiences. This rapidly-evolving, technology-driven paradigm is a huge shift away from the present, where digital interactions are based on text, audio and two-dimensional images/videos. The excitement around the Metaverse is due to the immense possibilities that exist around how it can be used for social interactions, commerce, media & entertainment, education, manufacturing, healthcare, defense etc. Not surprisingly, many companies, even in India, are investing in Metaverse capabilities.

While the potential for metaverse cannot be denied, it is just as important to recognize and acknowledge that there are several grey areas around this paradigm. If timely actions to prevent the misuse of the metaverse are not taken by the global community, we run the serious risk of opening a new Pandora’s Box. And once the proverbial genie is released from the bottle, it is virtually impossible (pun intended) to put it back inside.

The Potential Dangers of the Metaverse

 
What are the biggest fears surrounding the Metaverse? Concerns have been expressed from different quarters around issues relating to the privacy, safety and well-being of people who are active in the metaverse. In the current scenario, people use social platforms to connect with each other. If someone with whom I do not wish to engage seeks to connect with me in a basic digital world, I can easily deny the friend request. Even after having granted them permission initially, I can choose to block such persons. During the time they have permission to engage with me, the worst that can happen is that they send unwanted texts, audio messages or images and videos.

This is bad enough, but in the metaverse, the kind and nature of obscene or harmful content will change drastically; consequently, so will the impact of such material and experiences on vulnerable segments of society. 

For example, in the metaverse, it is quite possible for complete strangers to enter someone else’s personal space – without the latter being aware of who the former is. Given the multi-sensory capabilities of the metaverse, which includes haptic technology (the sense of touch), the experience and impact can be far worse. Arguably, the metaverse (as it exists currently) lends itself more easily to bullying, sexual abuse or intimidation. Indeed, there have been recent media reports that some VR-based games that are accessible to young children contain inappropriate content. 

AI-driven deep fakes can further muddy the waters by creating and distributing patently false content that is almost impossible to detect as fake. There is enough fake information circulating on Whatsapp as it is, think of the danger of content that purportedly shows politicians or others saying things designed to inflame emotions.

NFTs will be key to the evolution and growth of the metaverse, providing owners of physical assets such as paintings and IPR such as rights to music, movies etc. new avenues to monetize them at scale. Cryptocurrencies and tokens are likely to form the principal currency in the metaverse, powering commerce and payments. As of now, cryptocurrencies are anonymous and independent of mainstream banking and financial systems. 

In the absence of regulations that are uniformly enforced globally, such parallel payment systems can be easily misused for illegal and immoral activities and transactions, including child sexual abuse. It is likely that fraud and crimes will increasingly crisscross between the current digital world and the metaverse (and perhaps the physical world), making them harder to detect and bring the perpetrators to book.

Addressing the Issues Surrounding Metaverse 

 

A multipronged approach is key to addressing the potential dangers of the metaverse. It is vital to frame appropriate legislation and arm various regulatory agencies with the power to catch and punish violators is vital. The basic premise around legislation has to be this: if something is illegal or against the law or generally accepted social mores in the “real”, physical world, it must be treated the same way in any parallel “virtual reality” based universe.

However, legislation alone cannot secure the metaverse. It will be essential to hold creators of content and platforms that enable distribution and access responsible for violations. The metaverse infrastructure needs to be designed with more intent to put in place appropriate safety mechanisms right at the beginning. As a global society, we must learn from our experiences with the downsides of social media platforms (false information, cyber-bullying, digital fraud etc.) and take preemptive actions that can prevent problems before they become common. This is significant because changing processes after people have grown accustomed to them is never easy; also, some damage may have already occurred. It may also be necessary to think of ways to incentivize good behaviour in the metaverse.

The metaverse is expected to surge ahead quickly on its evolutionary path. Its trajectory cannot be predicted in advance, therefore, what is needed is constant vigilance and for global action to be taken in a concerted manner. The UN system is supposed to be the primary keeper of international order. A number of events over the past couple of decades have painfully driven home the point that the UN architecture needs an urgent and major overhaul. As part of this exercise, it may be useful to establish a new global body tasked with the responsibility of overseeing and governing the metaverse. Regional political/economic blocs must be encouraged to ensure that their members comply with rules and regulations related to the metaverse.

The metaverse is expected to surge ahead quickly on its evolutionary path. Its trajectory cannot be predicted in advance; therefore, what is needed is constant vigilance and for global action to be taken in a concerted manner.

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IS17428 -A New Privacy Assurance Standard in India

Recently, Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail Ltd (ABFR) faced a major data breach on its e-commerce portal. As per the reports, personal information of over 5.4 million users of the platform was made public. The 700 GB data leak included personal customer details like order histories, names, dates of birth, credit card information, addresses and contact numbers. Additionally, details like salaries, religion, marital status of employees were also leaked.  Forensic and data security experts were pro-actively engaged to implement the requisite damage-control measures and launch a detailed investigation into the matter.[1] This demonstrates the need to have wider awareness and establish standardized protocols for personal data management. 

The battle of data protection and privacy currently stands at a juxtaposition with a flourishing data economy. 2021 was a watershed moment in the privacy & data protection dialogue in the country. The need for comprehensive data protection law was louder than ever and there were major initiatives on the legislative and executive front.

In June of 2021, the Bureau of India Standards (BIS) introduced IS 17428 for data privacy assurance. It is a privacy framework designed for organisations to handle the personal data of individuals that they collect or process. The certification provided by BIS for IS 17428 can be deemed as an assurance extended to the customers/users by the organizations of well-implemented privacy practice. The BIS being a statutorily created standard-setting body of our country will bring some welcome change in our data management.  

IS 17428 is divided into 2 parts[2]:

  • Part 1 deals with the Management and Engineering parameters that are mandatory for an organization to comply with. This part provides for establishing and cultivating a competent Data Privacy Management System.
  • Part 2 deals with the Engineering and Management guidelines which enable the implementation of Part 1. These guidelines are not mandatory in nature but a reference framework for an organization to implement good practices internally.

 

The Context – Privacy & Data Protection laws in India

 

The Data protection bill was expected to be tabled in parliament back in 2019 but was postponed due to the ongoing pandemic. The country was hoping to pass the bill last year, however, it was sent to the Joint Parliament Committee (JPC) for perusal. The JPC made its report on the bill public in the month of December 2021.

Also, Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011 had been implemented back in 2011, primarily to safeguard the sensitive personal data of individuals that are collected, processed, transferred, or stored by any organisation and enumerate security practices. The rule lays down certain practices and procedures to be followed by a stakeholder while dealing with sensitive personal data. International Standard IS/ISO/IEC 27001 is one such acceptable standard.

Later ISO27701 was specifically introduced that focused on Privacy Information Management.  However, our Indian enactment has not specifically endorsed any such standards though Standards formulated by the industry association that is approved and notified by the Central Government are also deemed appropriate.  In this background, BIS introducing a standard is a welcome initiative as it will help in bringing uniformity in terms of the implementation of privacy practices across Indian industries.

Components of Part 1 of IS 17428[3]

 
Development of Privacy Requirements:

While developing the privacy requirements of the organisation in relation to the data collected or processed, the organisation has to take into consideration various factors such as jurisdiction, statutory requirements and business needs.

Personal Data Collection and Limitation:

The organisation is permitted to collect the personal information of the individuals, provided the same has been consented to by such individuals.

Privacy notice: 

The organisation is bound to provide a notice to individuals while collecting information from them and when such collection is through an indirect method employed by the organisation, then it is the duty of the former to convey by the same in an unambiguous and legitimate means.

The contents of a privacy notice at the minimum should include the following[4]:

  • Name and Address of the entity collecting the personal data
  • Name and Address of the entity retaining the personal data, if different from above
  • Types and categories of personal data collected
  • Purpose of collection and processing
  • Recipients of personal data, including any transfers
Choice and Consent:

As mentioned earlier, while collecting information, the organisation should get the consent of the individual at the initiation of the process while offering such individuals the choice of the information that they consent to disclose. This entire process should be done in a lawful manner and according to the privacy policies implemented by the organisation.

Data Accuracy: 

The data collected by the organisation should be accurate, and in case it is inaccurate, it should be corrected promptly.

Use Limitation: 

The data collected by the organisation should be used for the legitimate purpose for which it was agreed upon and it shall not be used for any other purposes.

Security: 

The organisation should implement a strict security program to ensure that the information collected is not breached or compromised in any manner.

Data Privacy Management System: 

The organisation is required to establish a Data Privacy Management System (DPMS). The DPMS shall act as a point of reference and baseline for the organisation’s privacy requirements/objectives.

Privacy Objectives: 

The privacy objective of the organisation shall be fixed and set out by the organisation itself. While determining the objectives the organisation shall also look into various factors such as the nature of business operations involving the GDPR processing of personal information, the industry domain, type of individuals, the extent to which the processed information is outsourced and the personal information collected. Moreover, the organisation shall also ensure that the objectives are in alignment with its privacy policy, business objectives and the geographical distribution of its operations.

Personal Data Storage Limitation: 

The organisation shall be allowed to retain the information collected from the individual only for a specific time period as required by the law or the completion of the purpose for which it was collected in the first place. The individual shall have the right to delete their personal information from the organisation database upon request.

Privacy Policy: 

The organisation shall create and implement a privacy policy that shall determine the scope and be applicable to all its business affiliates. The senior management of the organisation shall be in charge of the data privacy function. Moreover, the privacy policy should be in consonance with the privacy objectives of the organisation.

Records and Document Management

The organisation shall keep a record of its processing activities which shall, in turn, ensure responsibility towards the compliance of data privacy. The possible way to achieve such a standard is to lay out procedures that help to identify various records. While laying out procedures, the organisation shall take into consideration certain factors such as a record of logs that demonstrate affirmative action and options chosen by individuals on privacy consent and notice, evidence of capture events related to access or use of personal information, and retention period of obsolete documents.

Privacy Impact Assessment: 

A privacy impact assessment shall be carried out by the organisation from time to time. Such an assessment shall help in estimating the changes and the impact that they can possibly have on the data privacy of the individuals.

Privacy Risk Management

The organisation shall put in place and document a privacy risk management methodology. The methodology shall determine how the risks are managed and how the risks are kept at an acceptable level.

Grievance Redress:  

A grievance redressal mechanism shall be established by the organisation to handle the grievances of the individuals promptly. The organisation shall ensure that the contact information of the grievance officer shall be displayed or published and that they have the channel of receiving complaints from the individuals. Moreover, the organisation shall also make it clear as to the provision for escalation and appeal and the timelines for resolution of the grievance.

Periodic Audits: 

The organisation shall conduct periodic audits for the data privacy management system. The audit shall be conducted by an independent authority competent in data privacy, internal or external to the organization, at a periodicity appropriate for the organization, at least once a year.

Privacy Incident Management: 

Privacy breaches and data privacy incidents shall be reported regularly and the organisation shall come up with a mechanism to manage such incidents. The process shall involve identifying the incident at the first stage and investigating the root cause, preparing analysis and correcting the incidents in the second stage. The last stage is basically informing the key stakeholders including Data Privacy Authority about the breach or incident.

Data Subject’s Request Management: 

The organisation shall develop a mechanism to respond to requests from individuals concerning their personal data. This process shall include the means to verify the identity of the individual, provision access to the information and the means to update the information.

 

How IS 17428 would help in Privacy and Data Protection? 

 

The Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011 (RSPP and SPDI rules) had been the only law for organisations to follow. The rules did not prescribe or detail any specific requirements or standards in relation to personal data management and in the absence of formulated standards for the protection of the sensitive personal data of individuals, industry bodies were struggling to have uniform procedures. 

This being the case, introducing specific standards for personal data management will bring more clarity and will help companies to adhere to an approved standard prescribed by a government agency. Moreover, principles narrated in this standard are in accordance with the Internationally recognised privacy principles and will help Indian companies to proffer confidence when dealing with their commercial counterparts.

Introduction of record and document management, risk assessment and data subject request management are a few of the aspects that bring onerous responsibilities on companies making them more accountable and transparent.  These aspects have laid down procedures and mechanisms for an organisation to improve their privacy management, for example, introducing processes such as verification of identity, access to information, evidence of capture events of consent and retention period of obsolete documents.

 

The proposed data protection legislation and the IS 17428

 

The IS 17428 standard has been inspired primarily from the principles dictated from OECD privacy principles, GDPR and ISO27701. The proposed data protection legislation on the other hand has many divergences from the above instruments in many respects. For Instance, the IS standard has an elaborate description provided for the privacy objective of the organisation and the factors that need to be taken into account. Most of these objectives are covered under Sections 22 and 23 of the draft Bill but nevertheless, the standard has recommended a few other factors such as geographical operation, industrial domain and type of individuals as specific factors to be taken into consideration while drafting the privacy objectives. How much discretionary privacy standards can be created, what is allowed freedom for industries in this regard is unclear.

Section 28 of the draft bill talks about the records and document management of the data collected or processed and the standard covers almost every bit of the section. In addition to the consideration mentioned under the bill, the standard goes forward and echoes the need to establish a policy on the preservation of obsolete policies and process documents. Data and record-keeping should be for a defined period. The majority of other legislation prescribes an average of 7 years of data-keeping. Keeping any data beyond such a reasonable period may not serve many purposes. Why this standard has prescribed such obsolete data retention is again unclear.

The standard could be made effective by only having an enactment for data protection legislation in place. For instance, the grievance redressal mechanism, though the standards do envisage an appeal mechanism, they do not establish appeal machinery. This part of the standard can be put to use only after the Data Protection Authority as per section 32 is constituted. The standard also calls for an investigative process in the event of any breach or compromise of data. The organisation is welcome to conduct an onsite or internal investigation into the breach or incidents, but once again an independent authority to investigate in a legitimate and fair manner is required.

In short, I am afraid, has it failed to take into account the special requirements contemplated under the PDPB, 2019 which may eventually become the law of the country thereby, once this law is enacted, this standard will also be required to be modified. The government has not made any announcement as per the RSPP and SPDI rules, that IS 17428 is an appropriate standard certifying the compliance of personal data management. In the absence of such explicit endorsement, the ambiguity continues as to whether the adoption of this standard is sufficient compliance under the said rules.

Finally, with the Data protection bill around the corner, the Data Protection Authority envisaged being constituted under the legislation which shall have the power to issue code, guidelines, and best practices for protecting the privacy of data subjects. How IS 17428 standards framed by the BIS will be looked at by the DPA or the proposed rule will offer a different set of practices shall be an interesting development to observe.

References:

[1] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/cons-products/fashion-/-cosmetics-/-jewellery/abfrl-faces-data-breach-on-its-portal/articleshow/88930807.cms

[2] The IS 17438 was established on November 20, 2020 and notified in the official gazette on December 4, 2020. Please see the notification available at: https://egazette.nic.in/WriteReadData/2020/223869.pdf (last visited Jan 18, 2022).

[3] Supra note 2.

[4] Sub-clause 4.2.2 of the IS Requirements: “Privacy Notice”.

 

 

Photo Credits:

Image by Darwin Laganzon from Pixabay 

Introduction of record and document management, risk assessment and data subject request management are a few of the aspects that bring onerous responsibilities on companies making them more accountable and transparent.  These aspects have laid down procedures and mechanisms for an organisation to improve their privacy management, for example, introducing processes such as verification of identity, access to information, evidence of capture events of consent and retention period of obsolete documents.

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Non-Personal Data Governance Framework, 2020

The realm of the internet has become an information powerhouse and data has become the new endowment of resources that governments and corporate entities are eager to tap into. The transformation in the digital environment and the emergence of information-intensive services has made data a necessary raw material for most undertakings.

Reports suggest that every minute Instagram is flooded with 277,000 stories, Google has 4.4 million searches and Uber has over 9700 rides in 2019. Today, data is an asset to various businesses and holds importance while making investments, mergers, and acquisitions, and/ or direct monetization.

 

While the discussion on ‘personal data’ has been revolving around privacy and security concerns, non-personal data is being eyed as an economic opportunity to augment public or private interest which must not be squandered. Considering the value proposition attributed to non-personal data, the legal aspect was sought to be dealt separately from ‘personal data’ which would be governed by the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 that is in the brink of finalization.

 

Consequently, an Expert Committee (“Committee“) was constituted by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY“) to study various issues relating to non-personal data. The Committee submitted its Report on Non-personal Data Governance Framework for comments from stakeholders in July 2020.

 

The report highlighted that data regulation is essential to utilize the maximum potential in data by realizing its economic, social, and public value. The need to regulate data stems from the imbalances in bargaining power between the companies that lead to the creation of data monopolies. Moreover, the privacy concerns revolving around the dilution of shared data must be tackled.

 

Non-Personal Data (“NPD“) is the data that cannot be identified with a particular individual, for example, weather forecast, traffic details, geospatial information, production processes, anonymized personal data, etc.

 

  1. Committee’s Proposal to Non-Personal Data Regulation

 

The NPD Governance Framework outlines norms for collection of data and data sharing by entities. The salient features of the proposed framework are:

 

  • The NPD framework provides key roles for all the participants such as Data Principal, Data Custodian, Data Trustees and Data Trusts.
  • Classification of NPD: Non-personal Data is further classified into Public NPD, Community NPD and Private NPD. Public NPD is NPD that is collected or generated by the government or by the agency of the government and includes data collected or generated in the course of execution of all publicly funded works (e.g. public health information, vehicle registration, etc.) excluding the one that is explicitly declared as confidential under the law. Community NPD is data about inanimate or animate phenomenon about a particular community of natural persons (e.g. data collected by e-commerce platforms or by telecom). Private NPD is NPD collected or produced by non-governmental entities or persons.
    • Ownership of non-personal data: In cases wherein, non-personal data is derived from personal data of an individual, the data principal for personal data will be the data principal for the NPD too. Further, the rights over the community NPD collected in India will vest in the trustee of such a community.
    • Sensitivity of NPD: The Committee has also defined a new concept of ‘sensitivity of NPD’, as NPD can also be sensitive from the perspective of: a) national security or strategic interests; b) sensitive or confidential information relating to businesses; and c) anonymized data, that bears a risk of re-identification.
    • Data Businesses and data disclosures: There is also the creation of a new horizontal classification called ‘Data Business’ which is when any existing business collects data beyond a threshold level. Such Data Businesses have to get themselves registered and furnish information on what they do/ collect, their purpose, and the nature of data stored. However, registration of Data Businesses collecting data below the threshold is not mandatory.
    • Non-Personal Data Regulatory Authority: NPD Regulatory Authority shall ensure that data is shared for sovereign, social and economic welfare, for regulatory and competition purposes, and also that all stakeholders adhere to the rules and data sharing requirements.
  1. Unanswered Questions: Shortcomings of the proposed Framework:

 

Attempting to govern the NPD is a commendable effort, however, it seems that there is a slew of questions that are left unanswered. The following are the issues relating to the proposed framework:

 

  • The foremost need to govern NPD as highlighted by the Committee is the imbalance in the digital ecosystem. However, neither the sources of these imbalances have been identified or analysed nor has it been clarified how the proposed regulations resolve these inequities.
  • Ambiguous classification of NPD: The various types of NPD have a potential overlap, but then again, clearly demarcating a line between the three types would be a difficult task. Also, one of the three types of NPD is Community NPD, however, there is no clarification as to how the ‘community’ would be determined. The definition of ‘community’ is wide, under the same even religious groups, residents of the same locality or same educational background would be a valid community, which may have conflicting interests over data shared with the government. Further, without any guiding principles, companies will be forced to make legally binding decisions on what they deem to be a valid community, the scope of data to be shared and for the resolution of competing claims, which is problematic at various levels. Moreover, on a particular dataset, there could be various interests, and in such cases, who would be entrusted with the data remains ambiguous.
  • Anonymization of Personal Data to Non-Personal Data: The process of converting personal data into Non-Personal Data by removing certain identifiers or credentials is termed as ‘anonymization’. Anonymization would undoubtedly convert a set of personal data into non-personal data but, such data runs the risks of re-identification. Further, although anonymization is essential, high anonymization could render the data over-generalized and futile.
  • Reactions of Stakeholders to the sharing of data: Mandatory data sharing is highly criticized by stakeholders, as it undermines the investments put in business and the value of intellectual property information the competitors would suffer. This ‘forced data sharing’ is counterproductive and would have a rather negative effect on foreign trade and investments. NPD can constitute trade secrets, that may be protected by IP laws, sharing this data raises concerns around the right to carry business and India’s obligation under international trade law. The purposes for data sharing under the framework are ‘sovereign’, ‘core public interest’, and ‘economic’ purposes which essentially covers all the data held by companies, and must be narrowed down.
  • Lack of Clarity on who really are trustees of Data: There is ambiguity regarding who will be a data trustee. Whether private, for-profit organizations or private entities within the government could be data trustees is not apparent. Also, the position regarding a data trustee’s independence and conflict of interest remains murky. It is essential that the roles and functions of these bodies are comprehensively defined.
  • User-Consent: NPD Framework also proposes that before the anonymization of data the consent of the user must be taken. It remains particularly unclear as to how would the consent be taken from them. Further, a company needs to invest in resources and obtain user consent, and sharing data may provide no incentive to such companies and would drown them into losses.
  • Over-Regulation by Non-Personal Data Authority: Creating altogether a new authority for NPD would lead to potential regulatory overlap given Data Protection Authority addresses and enforces privacy concerns and the Competition Commission of India looks over consumer welfare.
  1. Conclusion

This effort of the Ministry to set up a Committee to study the NPD which may subsequently lead to a legislation governing the NPD in India is praiseworthy, however, a lot of issues need reconsideration. Stakeholders have expressed anguish over the mandatory sharing of data and data disclosures as it conveniently overlooks the humungous investments put in by the companies. Further, the roles and functions of various entities under the framework are not clearly defined. The NPDA established under the framework may have functional overlaps with the CCI and the Data Protection Authority.

 

Moreover, there is ambiguity regarding Community NPD and user consent. There is no doubt that the ever-evolving nature of information technology is demanding as far as regulatory mechanism is concerned therefore the road ahead is arduous. Hopefully, the concerns raised are adequately addressed by the Committee and constructively resolved in favour of all the stakeholders.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

This effort of the Ministry to set up a Committee to study the NPD which may subsequently lead to legislation governing the NPD in India is praiseworthy, however, a lot of issues need reconsideration. Stakeholders have expressed anguish over the mandatory sharing of data and data disclosures as it outrightly overlooks the humungous investments put in by the companies.

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Core Legal Issues with Artificial Intelligence in India

The adoption and penetration of Artificial Intelligence in our lives today does not necessitate any more enunciation or illustration. While the technology is still considered to be in its infancy by many, so profound has been its presence that we do not comprehend our reliance on it unless it is specifically pointed out. From Siri, Alexa to Amazon and Netflix, there is hardly any sector that has remained untouched by Artificial Intelligence.

Thus, the adoption of artificial intelligence is not the challenge but its ‘regulation’ is a slippery slope. Which leads us to questions such as whether we need to regulate artificial intelligence at all? If yes, do we need a separate regulatory framework or are the existing laws enough to regulate artificial intelligence technology?

Artificial intelligence goes beyond normal computer programs and technological functions by incorporating the intrinsic human ability to apply knowledge and skills and learning as well as improving with time. This makes them human-like. Since humans have rights and obligations, shouldn’t human-likes have them too?

But at this point in time, there have been no regulations or adjudications by the Courts acknowledging the legal status of artificial intelligence. Defining the legal status of AI machines would be the first cogent step in the framing of laws governing artificial intelligence and might even help with the application of existing laws.

A pertinent step in the direction of having a structured framework was taken by the Ministry of Industry and commerce when they set up an 18 member task force in 2017 to highlight and address the concerns and challenges in the adoption of artificial intelligence and facilitate the growth of such technology in India. The Task Force came up with a report in March 2018[1] in which they provided recommendations for the steps to be taken in the formulation of a policy.

The Report identified ten sectors which have the greatest potential to benefit from the adoption of artificial intelligence and also cater to the development of artificial intelligence-based technologies. The report also highlighted the major challenges which the implementation of artificial intelligence might face when done on large scale, namely (i) Encouraging data collection, archiving and availability with adequate safeguards, possibly via data marketplaces/exchanges; (ii) Ensuring data security, protection, privacy and ethical via regulatory and technological frameworks; (iii) Digitization of systems and processes with IoT systems whilst providing adequate protection from cyber-attacks; and (iv) Deployment of autonomous products and mitigation of impact on employment and safety.[2]

The Task Force also suggested setting up of an “Inter–Ministerial National Artificial Intelligence Mission”, for a period of 5 years, with funding of around INR 1200 Crores, to act as a nodal agency to coordinate all AI-related activities in India.

 

Core Legal Issues

When we look at the adoption of artificial intelligence from a legal and regulatory point of view, the main issue we need to consider is, are the existing laws sufficient to address the legal issues which might arise or do we need a new set of laws to regulate the artificial intelligence technologies. Whilst certain aspects like intellectual property rights and use of data to develop artificial intelligence might be covered under the existing laws, there are some legal issues which might need a new set of regulation to overlook the artificial intelligence technology.

 

  • Liability of Artificial Intelligence

 

The current legal regime does not have a framework where a robot or an artificial intelligence program might be held liable or accountable in case a third party suffers any damage due to any act or omission by the program. For instance, let us consider a situation where a self-driven car controlled via an artificial intelligence program gets into an accident. How will the liability be apportioned in such a scenario?

The more complex the artificial intelligence program, the harder it will be to apply simple rules of liability on them. The issue of apportionment of liability will also arise when the cause of harm cannot be traced back to any human element, or where any act or omission by the artificial intelligence technology which has caused damage could have been avoided by human intervention.

One more instance where the current legal regime may not be able to help is where the artificial intelligence enters into a contractual obligation after negotiating the terms and conditions of the contract and subsequently there is a breach of contract.

In the judicial pronouncement of United States v Athlone Indus Inc[3] it was held by the court that since robots and artificial intelligence programs are not natural or legal persons, they cannot be held liable even if any devastating damage may be caused. This traditional rule may need reconsideration with the adoption of highly intelligent technology.

The pertinent legal question here is what kind of rules, regulations and laws will govern these situations and who is to decide it, where the fact is that artificial intelligence entities are not considered to be subject of law.[4]

 

  • Personhood of Artificial Intelligence Entities

 

From a legal point of view, personhood of an entity is an extremely important factor to assign rights and obligations. Personhood can either be natural or legal. Attribution of personhood is important from the point of view that it would help identify as to who would ultimately be bearing the consequences of an act or omission.

Artificial intelligence entities, to have any rights or obligations should be assigned personhood to avoid any legal loopholes. “Electronic personhood”[5] could be attributed to such entities in situations where they interact independently with third parties and take autonomous decisions.

 

  • Protection of Privacy and Data

For the development of better artificial intelligence technologies, the free flow of data is crucial as it is the main fuel on which these technologies run. Thus, artificial intelligence technologies must be developed in such a way that they comply with the existing laws of privacy, confidentiality, anonymity and other data protection framework in place. There must be regulations which ensure that there is no misuse of personal data or security breach. There should be mechanisms that enable users to stop processing their personal data and to invoke the right to be forgotten. It further remains to be seen whether the current data protection/security obligations should be imposed on AI and other similar automated decision-making entities to preserve individual’s right to privacy which was declared as a fundamental right by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in KS Puttaswamy & Anr. v Union of India and Ors[6]. This also calls for an all-inclusive data privacy regime which would apply to both private and public sector and would govern the protection of data, including data used in developing artificial intelligence. Similarly, surveillance laws also would need a revisiting for circumstances which include the use of fingerprints or facial recognition through artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

At this point in time there are a lot of loose ends to be tied up like the rights and responsibilities of the person who controls the data for developing artificial intelligence or the rights of the data subjects whose data is being used to develop such technologies. The double-edged sword situation between development of artificial intelligence and the access of data for further additional purposes also needs to be deliberated upon.

Concluding Remarks

In this evolving world of technology with the capabilities of autonomous decision making, it is inevitable that the implementation of such technology will have legal implications. There is a need for a legal definition of artificial intelligence entities in judicial terms to ensure regulatory transparency. While addressing the legal issues, it is important that there is a balance between the protection of rights of individuals and the need to ensure consistent technological growth. Proper regulations would also ensure that broad ethical standards are adhered to. The established legal principles would not only help in the development of the sector but will also ensure that there are proper safeguards in place.

In this evolving world of technology with the capabilities of autonomous decision making, it is inevitable that the implementation of such technology will have legal implications. There is a need for a legal definition of artificial intelligence entities in judicial terms to ensure regulatory transparency. While addressing the legal issues, it is important that there is a balance between the protection of rights of individuals and the need to ensure consistent technological growth.

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Bulk Data Sharing & Procedure Notification - A Data Breach?

In this digital era, data has become one of the most valuable assets to own. Elections have been won and international alliances have toppled because of support that could be garnered by utilizing data analytics. While heated debate surrounding data breaches by private entities baffles the world, at home, it is accused that the Indian Government has monetized from sale of personal data of Individuals, in the pretext of public purposes” under a notification released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in March 2019 titled “Bulk Data Sharing & Procedure”.

In July 2019, a parliamentary debate pertaining to “sale of data” by the State was raised because the Government had provided access to databases containing driving license and vehicle registration details to private companies and Government entities and generated revenue out of them.  The two databases of Ministry of Road Transport and Highways named Vahan and Sarathi were under discussion.  These databases contained details such as vehicle owner’s names, registration details, chasis number, engine number, and driving license related particulars of individuals.  These details amount to personal information by which an individual could be identified (“Personal Data”).  

The sale of data was pursuant to a notification released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in March 2019 titled Bulk Data Sharing & Procedure wherein a policy framework on sale of bulk data relating to driving license and vehicle registration was introduced.  Among other things, this writeup discusses whether such sale of Personal Data for revenue generation is acceptable in light of privacy as a fundamental right and the Data Protection Bill 2018? and whether such access constitutes data breach? 

 

Bulk Data Sharing & Procedure Notification 

The “Bulk Data Sharing & Procedure” notification by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways states the purpose for which bulk data access would be  provided: 

it is recognized that sharing this data for other purposes, in a controlled manner, can support the transport and automobile industry.  The sharing of data will also help in service improvements and wider benefits to citizens & Government. In addition, it will also benefit the country’s economy”.  

As per the notification, only such entities that qualify the eligibility criteria would be provided access to bulk data.  The eligibility criteria are that an entity should be registered in India with at least 50% Indian ownership, such bulk data should be processed/stored in Servers/Data Centers in India, and the entity should have obtained security pre-audit report from CERT-In empanelled auditor.  The bulk data access would be provided for a price.  

Commercial organizations could have such data for an amount of INR 3 crores and educational institutions could have them for 5 lakhs.  As per the notification, the bulk data will be provided in encrypted form with restricted access.  Such entities would be restricted from any activity that would identify individuals using such data sets.  The entities would be required to follow certain protocols for data loss prevention, access controls, audit logs, security and vulnerability.  Violation of these protocols is punishable under the Information Technology Act, 2000. 

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has in accordance with this policy framework provided database access to 87 private companies and 32 government entities for a price of 65 crores resulting in Personal Data of all individuals being accessible to them.  The Data Principal (the individual whose information is in the database) has no knowledge or control over any use or misuse of his/her information.   

In any data protection framework worldwide, the Data Principal’s consent should be sought stating the purpose for which data ought to be used.  It is only pursuant to Data Principal’s consent that any information can be processed.  On the contrary, providing access to Personal Data to third party private companies without any consent of the Data Principal will keep them out of effective control.  This is against the basic principles of data protection. 

 

Proposed Legislation for Data Protection 

India is on the verge of a new Data Protection Act as the bill is being placed in the Parliament.  The Data Protection Bill, 2018 contains certain provisions to address the above-mentioned issues.  Section 5 of the Data Protection Bill states when personal data can be processed.  Personal Data shall be allowed only for such purposes that are  clear, specific, and lawful.  Section 5 is extracted below: 

  1. Purpose limitation— (1) Personal data shall be processed only for purposes that are clear, specific and lawful. (2) Personal data shall be processed only for purposes specified or for any other incidental purpose that the data principal would reasonably expect the personal data to be used for, having regard to the specified purposes, and the context and circumstances in which the personal data was collected.

Moreover, the relevant enactment regulating driving license and vehicle registration i.e. Motor Vehicle Act does not explicitly permit the State to sell or provide third parties access to Personal Data for generation of revenue.  Therefore, there is no clear, specific, or lawful indication of such access in the enactment.  The question arises whether access to bulk Personal Data can be interpreted as an “incidental purpose” that “data principal would reasonably expect”.  The data principal has provided this information only for the purpose of grant of motor vehicle license and vehicle registration.  The Data Principal ought not have expected his/her data to be sold by the Government. 

Section 13 of the Data Protection Bill is also of relevance here because it authorizes the State to process Personal Data for provision of services, benefit or issuance of certification, licenses or permits.  Section 13 is extracted below: 

Section 13 – Processing of personal data for functions of the State. — Personal data may be processed if such processing is necessary for excise of the functions of the State authorised by law for: (a) the provision of any service or benefit to the data principal from the State. (b) the issuance of any certification, license, or permit for any action or activity of the data principal of the State. 

 

By this section, the State is authorized to use Personal Data for grant of license or permits or to provide any benefit or service.  However, whether the State is authorized to give access to Personal Data to third party private companies is unclear. 

Section 17 of the Data Protection Bill tries to shed some light on this anomaly.  The section states that Personal Data may be processed for “reasonable purposes” after considering if there is any public interest involved in processing the same.  What constitutes reasonable purpose is yet to be specified by the Data Protection Authority to be constituted.  Section 17 is extracted hereunder: 

  1. Processing of data for reasonable purposes. — 

(1) In addition to the grounds for processing contained in section12 to section 16, personal data may be processed if such processing is necessary for such reasonable purposes as may be specified after taking into consideration— 

(a) the interest of the data fiduciary in processing for that purpose; 

(b) whether the data fiduciary can reasonably be expected to obtain the consent of the data principal; 

(c) any public interest in processing for that purpose; 

(d) the effect of the processing activity on the rights of the data principal; and 

(e) the reasonable expectations of the data principal having regard to the context of the processing. 

(2) For the purpose of sub-section (1), the Authority may specify reasonable purposes related to the following activities, including— 

(a) prevention and detection of any unlawful activity including fraud; 

(b) whistle blowing; 

(c) mergers and acquisitions; 

(d) network and information security; 

(e) credit scoring; 

(f) recovery of debt; 

(g) processing of publicly available personal data; 

(3) Where the Authority specifies a reasonable purpose under sub-section (1), it shall: (a) lay down such safeguards as may be appropriate to ensure the protection of the rights of data principals; and (b) determine where the provision of notice under section 8 would not apply having regard to whether such provision would substantially prejudice the relevant reasonable purpose. 

 

Section 17, therefore, clarifies that when there is any public interest involved, the State may provide access to publicly available personal data to third parties.  This read with Section 13 indicates that State is not required to get the consent of Data Principal in order to provide services and benefits.   

 

Whether the State has provided access to personal data for public interest or to provide services and benefits? 

The Bulk Data Processing & Procedure notification states that the purpose of providing access of bulk Personal Data is to “support the transport and automobile industry” & “help in service improvements and wider benefits to citizens & Government”.  Supporting the transport and automobile industry and improving services may qualify as public interest, whereas, mere revenue generation will not.  However, there is no clarification from the Government as to how these private companies to whom database access is being provided assist in public interest.  Further, whether all driving license and registration details related data can be classified as publicly available information is again contentious and questionable as the information provided therein is intended to be provided only to license holders & vehicle owners and is partially masked. 

In the event if this Personal Data is not construed as public data or these public companies have been given access to personal data in the absence of any public interest, it would result  in personal data breach by the Government Departments where the head of Department will be held liable as per section 96 of the Data Protection Bill. 

It is quite preposterous to note that on the one hand Data Protection Bill is being tabled in parliament and on the other, the Government is selling Personal Data of the general public for economic gains.  Whether it results in the exploitation of personal and private data on the pretext of public interest without an individual’s consent needs to be ascertained. 

Image Credits:

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

 

It is quite preposterous to note that on the one hand Data Protection Bill is being tabled in parliament and on the other, the Government is selling Personal Data of the general public for economic gains.

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