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RTI STORIES » RTI and Privacy- Are they two sides of the same coin?

Dated: 22/10/2013
RTI and Privacy- Are they two sides of the same coin?

  Right to information (RTI) laws provide a fundamental right for any person to access information held by government organisations. At the same time, right to privacy laws grant individuals a fundamental right to control the collection of,access to, and use of personal information about them that is held by governments and private bodies. However, the reality is more complex. Privacy and RTI are often described as “two sides of the same coin” — mainly acting as complementary rights that promote individuals’ rights to protect themselves and to promote government accountability.

 
On one hand under RTI Act the collection of information by governments is done on behalf of its citizens, and the public is only truly able to participate in the democratic process when it has information about the activities and policies of the government. A right of an individual, organization, to demand information from public bodies, without having to show a legal interest in that information is the essence of RTI Act 2005. On the other hand Privacy is considered essential in protecting an individual’s ability to develop ideas and personal relationships. Although it is often summarized as “the right to be left alone,” it encompasses a wide range of rights—including protection from intrusions into family and home life and communications secrecy.
 
Governments and private organizations that collect information related to government services and obligations (including Income tax,medical details, criminal records (NCRB), and citizenship records (UIDIA, National Population Register) and identification technologies (including identity card systems,fingerprints, IRIS Scan, Video survullence) have quickly evolved and expanded. New communications technologies create and collect substantial records about individuals in the process of providing communications. Services run by governments and private operators collect information about individuals, including emails, records of persons communicated with, lists of Web sites visited,and mobile locations. And, of course, people share information through social networking sites. There are many applications called as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) which are used by many companies and Government to collect citizen information. All of these have led to concerns about abuses,including misuse of information for unlawful purposes and identity theft. Government of India is in process of bringing in legislation under Right to Privacy. We have already started our website to address this important issue, and shall be populated in due course of time. Please check the beta version here!
 
Privacy is increasingly being challenged by new technologies and practices.The technologies facilitate the growing collection and sharing of personal information. Sensitive personal data (including biometrics) are now collected and used routinely by organisations such as UIADI e.t.c. Public records are being disclosed over the Internet from the social networking sites.
 
Availability of Government information, RTI Act, and judicial decisions have led to many thoughts about rules governing access to personal information that is held by public bodies. It is here the two Rights ‘RTI and Privacy’ comes very very close. RTI and Privacy Laws can both complement and conflict with each other,depending on the situation.
 
RTI and Privacy
 
In India right now there is no general privacy law giving individuals a right of access to their own records,the RTI laws are the only means to access personal records. RTI Act 2005 are regularly used by us for the poor to obtain records on distribution of food subsidies to show that individuals’ names have been forged and records have been falsified. Thus in many cases, RTI and Privacy can overlap in a complementary manner. Both RTI and Privacy can provide an individual access to his or her own personal information from government bodies, and privacy laws shall allow for access to personal information held by private entities.They also can mutually enhance each other: privacy laws are used to obtain policy information in the absence of an RTI law, and RTI laws are used to enhance privacy by revealing abuses.
 
Governments collect large amounts of personal information,and sometimes there is a demand to access that information for various reasons.The requestors include journalists investigating stories, Activist groups fighting for transparency and accountability, individuals demanding to know why a decision was made in a certain way, companies seeking information for marketing purposes, and activists and scholars researching recent and not-so-recent events.
 
RTI Act 2005
 
Section 8 j provides for the RTI and Privacy details:
 
j. information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information: Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.
 
CPIO’s must deal with numerous issues: Should officers names and other details be considered private? Is information in public registers and muster rolls available for any use? Are court and criminal records public? Personal life—Information relating solely to a public employee’s personal life rather than to his or her public actions is one such place of RTI and Privacy come in conflict. There is also significant agreement that information about elected or high-rank public officials is less restricted, even when it relates to their personal lives. However, in India there is a strong attempt by Political parties to exempt themselves from RTI Act. Read our Blog here!
 
Other such materials are includes great amounts of Government bureaucratic records with information that most people consider sensitive—such as records relating to citizen’s interactions with government bodies for taxation and to their health care. An increasing controversy relates to access to information in public registers,such as birth, marriage,and death registers; electoral registers; land records; lists of license holders; and other similar records. In many countries, there has been along history of public access to these records. However, concern over their use for commercial purposes, for stalking, and for other reasons not related to their original purposes is a potential threat as the information have been digitized and made available over the Internet. Are we prepared to face that?
 
On the other hand, the misuse of privacy exemptions under section 8 j, often leads to needless conflict between the media and privacy protectors as the media and activist comes to believe that any privacy law is an attempt to hide government activities.
 
In this light, a food for thought is to have a single law for both RTI and Privacy. This shall have a limiting conflict and establishing a balance. However, this possibility is remote in India as we have already adopted RTI Act 2005. Therefore, the new Law ‘Right to Privacy Act’ adopted in a way that ensures the greatest harmony between the operations of the two laws RTI and Privacy. If the goal of harmony is ignored at the outset,the laws will conflict and further Parliamentary legislative efforts will be required later.
 
The article is written by taking major reference from the World Bank study available here!
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