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Privacy implications in India of the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US

The journey from the winters of 1973 to the summer of 2022.

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SC seeks Centre’s reply on fresh pleas against CAA

June 24, 2022 witnessed perhaps one of the single-most momentous blowbacks to the notion of privacy, the consequence of which would certainly send ripples across the globe both on an ideological and a judicial-legal plane. On this day, the Supreme Court of the United States of America on this day overturned the watershed case of legal and feminist jurisprudence, Roe v. Wade of 1973 (“Wade”), effectively disrobing women in the country from exercising the erstwhile right to abort. The ramification of this ruling underlines a particularly interesting conundrum – in the wake of Big Tech collecting, storing, and processing personal data and information incessantly and sharing the same with law enforcement agencies (“LEAs”) as and when mandated, how can the most vulnerable and sensitive aspects of a person’s personal life be afforded protection to in the absence of adequate safeguards?

It is common knowledge that the tracking and storage of personal data and information accompany with it a saddening saga of squander and abuse – history is witness to this. With the over-ruling of Wade, it is now open season, wild-wild-west – the LEAs theoretically have a free hand to collect location data, forage through text messages and SMSes, dig through web-browser histories, online purchases, and personal e-mails, and use period-tracking apps surreptitiously to prosecute not only the users but also the intermediaries who may provision the said services.

The logical, unfortunate conclusion to the series of events that may potentially transpire hereon would be an absolute nightmare for all the people and families who were promised significant reproductive autonomy in the US for the past five decades. To chill reproductive freedoms, we may now even notice medical and health services providers track pregnant patients and LEAs exploit tools of surveillance to enforce existing abortion laws.

CALM BEFORE THE STORM?

If a report from Vice News were to be believed, accessing data troves in the US is an absolute breeze – for as meager as $160, one could access a week’s worth of data of the credentials and the geo-indicators of people who visited Planned Parenthood facilities (an American NGO which provides for sexual healthcare services). One possible reason why such a glaring infraction of personal privacy exists in the US in broad daylight is because of a ‘gray area of the law’. This gray area pertains to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, 1996 (“HIPPA”) which covers such data or information that is shared by the individual with a doctor. However, HIPPA does not secure any such data or information which is shared with a third-party. Hence, taking into consideration the possibility that third-party apps may share such data or information with yet another third party, the risk of abuse is glaring, to say the least.

There are two consequential takeaways for policymakers closer to home in India here. First and foremost, the guardrails for the protection and preservation of personal data and information in India are starkly lacking. And, second, in the absence of an omnibus privacy legislation, individuals and their data are at the mercy of private parties and the government to be exploited and be capitalized on.

Certainly, the Supreme Court of India did affirm that the Right to Privacy forms an integral part of the Right to Life and Liberty guaranteed by Law under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution – certainly no two thoughts about it. However, because of its delicate nature, the degree of safety and consideration that protection of medical data warrants is a notch above the safety standards mandated by the protection of general data. Taking into consideration the rapid growth of the Indian telemedicine market, the onus falls upon the Government to ensure that the prospective economic benefits of the proliferating market segment do not imperil the tenets of the Right to Privacy, especially that of health data. A nuanced and considered approach is the call of the day.

FLAWS IN THE INDIAN MEDICAL DATA POLICY FRAMEWORK

Perhaps the most pertinent issue in the framework as it stands today is the ambiguity in the understanding of ‘health data’ or ‘medical data’ and what it constitutes. Case in point, the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act 2000”), along with the Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011 (“SPDI Rules”), accords the status of sensitive personal data or information (“SPDI”) merely on such data which are either related to the physical, physiological, or mental health of an individual. However, the current legal framework does not require such data to be anonymized – hence, it is quite feasible for any entity (government or third-party) which is in possession of such un-anonymized data to ascertain who it pertains to and mine such data, thereby risking misuse.

Despite several administrative attempts, the foul of conceptual legislative clarity remains. For instance, let us take into consideration three frameworks that pertain to or which touch upon personal health data, namely – the ‘Strategy Overview: Making India a Digital Health Nation Enabling Digital Healthcare for all’ document of the National Health Authority, dated July, 2020 (“NHA Strategy Overview”), the draft Digital Information Security in Healthcare Act, 2018 (“DISHA”), and the draft Data Protection Bill, 2021 (“DPB”). In the NHA Strategy Overview, “personal health data” encompasses information and data relating to the medical conditions and subsequent treatments undertaken by a party. In comparison to the standards of the NHA Strategy Overview – where on the one hand, the DPB covers only information regarding the physical or mental health of the individual, on the other, the DISHA goes a notch up and deals with data extracted from body-part donations and data derived from medical tests and bodily examinations as well. The discordance and dichotomy in the data protection frameworks indeed are glaring. Worse still, none of them reflect upon the surveillance misuse that can manifest from the status quo!

It indeed is well established that policy frameworks conceptualize data in general, and medical data in specific, as an incorporeal, intangible resource and an effective enabler for economic progress. Data is predominantly understood as a resource (like oil), available for human extraction, and exists independent of the bodies producing it. The present-day health data policy framework in India is inordinately concentrated on the data and information that is collated and collected by primary healthcare service providers (like hospitals and medical establishments) or secondary healthcare service providers or healthcare-related service providers (like insurance companies). We today have smartwatches and mobile apps which gather data on and monitor a person’s activity levels, heart rates, sleep cycles, and daily moods, and which also can track period-cycles. Hence, the draft DISHA-DPB framework presents a thought-provoking policy and legal lacuna – with the growing use of these smartwatches and third-party apps, can the law protect from exploitation the digital footprint of an individual that is left behind?

Yet another species of unease that arises is the difficulty in dealing with the unfettered access to medical data and information that the government (both at the Central and the State level) and LEAs can procure either from third-party apps or from IoT devices. To cite an instance, it is common knowledge that in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, both the Central as well as several State Governments used platforms and apps to track and contain the infection. What is perhaps not so commonly known is that for all the virtue and nobility that such contact tracing mechanisms may have brought about, they also institutionalized mass surveillance to a very large extent – one needs to understand that most of these apps often devolved into mechanisms of trickery by surveilling, monitoring and controlling the movement of individuals in the cloak of ‘lockdown enforcement’. Add to this, by way of the mandate provisioned in the proviso to Rule 6(1), and in Rule 6(2), of the SPDI Rules – sensitive personal data and information (including medical and health data) which is shared by an individual with third-party apps and platforms can legally be procured by LEAs without the explicit permission of the individual to whom such data belongs to. This gives rise to a certainly worrying trend, especially when you look at it from the privacy lens!

WHERE CAN WE GO FROM HERE: STEPS FOR THE TIMES AHEAD

In no uncertain terms, the pressing priority of the day in the Indian data-landscape is for lawmakers to cogitate considerately upon a definition of ‘health data and information’. A good starting point to fortress individual rights over their personal health would be to place digital health data and information collected by third-party apps and platforms, as well as by IoT devices, under the ambit of the draft DPB-DISHA framework.

Subsequently, legislative intent must deliberate over the fact that a certain category of health data is more intimate and sensitive than others (like, mental health issues faced by an individual vis-à-vis the height of that person) and may necessitate a higher degree of care and protection. Hence, to ensure that the individual possesses absolute and unqualified autonomy over such data of such a delicate character, a graded approach to health data is necessary.And lastly, lawmakers in India must take into account that in the wake of ‘data-sharing and interoperability’ practices, the policy-framework governing health data and information does not trade off privacy principles in the veneer of supposedly facilitating public welfare. Both healthcare service providers, medical insurance providers, and other healthcare-service providing third parties should enact protective policies which ought to be designed to keep a tight lid on sensitive personal health data and information and associated medical records and histories. Along these lines, to take a cue from the European General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”), wherein data subjects have the ‘right to erasure’ as protected under Article 17 and Recital 65, GDPR – in India as well, individuals should also have the right to ensure that their sensitive personal data and information is erased if and where the said individual objects to the collection or processing of her/his health data and information.

The United States’ decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (the regressive U-turn precedent to Wade) did ensure for certain one thing – that the frigidity of the winters of 1973 would certainly chill the spine of women fifty odd years after, in the summer of 2022. Trust, accountability, and transparency – at a time we need them the most are indeed the absolute, dire necessity of the moment.

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Policy&Politics

Govt extends date for submission of R&D proposals

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The Government has extended the deadline for submission of proposals related to R&D scheme under the National Green Hydrogen Mission. The R&D scheme seeks to make the production, storage, transportation and utilisation of green hydrogen more affordable. It also aims to improve the efficiency, safety and reliability of the relevant processes and technologies involved in the green hydrogen value chain. Subsequent to the issue of the guidelines, the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy issued a call for proposals on 16 March, 2024.

While the Call for Proposals is receiving encouraging response, some stakeholders have requested more time for submission of R&D proposals. In view of such requests and to allow sufficient time to the institutions for submitting good-quality proposals, the Ministry has extended the deadline for submission of proposals to 27th April, 2024.

The scheme also aims to foster partnerships among industry, academia and government in order to establish an innovation ecosystem for green hydrogen technologies. The scheme will also help the scaling up and commercialisation of green hydrogen technologies by providing the necessary policy and regulatory support.

The R&D scheme will be implemented with a total budgetary outlay of Rs 400 crore till the financial year 2025-26. The support under the R&D programme includes all components of the green hydrogen value chain, namely, production, storage, compression, transportation, and utilisation.

The R&D projects supported under the mission will be goal-oriented, time bound, and suitable to be scaled up. In addition to industrial and institutional research, innovative MSMEs and start-ups working on indigenous technology development will also be encouraged under the Scheme.

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Policy&Politics

India, Brazil, South Africa to press for labour & social issues, sustainability

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The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment.

India, on Thursday, joined the G20’s two-day 2nd Employment Working Group (EWG) meeting under the Brazilian Presidency which is all set to address labour, employment and social issues for strong, sustainable, balanced and job-rich growth for all. India is co-chairing the 2nd EWG meeting, along with Brazil and South Africa, and is represented by Sumita Dawra, Secretary, Labour & Employment.

The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment. India has pointed out that the priority areas of the 2nd EWG at Brasilia align with the priority areas and outcomes of previous G20 presidencies including Indian presidency, and commended the continuity in the multi-year agenda to create lasting positive change in the world of work. This not only sustains but also elevates the work initiated by the EWG during the Indian Presidency.

The focus areas for the 2nd EWG meeting are — creating quality employment and promoting decent labour, addressing a just transition amidst digital and energy transformations, leveraging technologies to enhance the quality of life for al and the emphasis on gender equity and promoting diversity in the world of employment for inclusivity, driving innovation and growth. On the first day of the meeting, deliberations were held on the over-arching theme of promotion of gender equality and promoting diversity in the workplace.

The Indian delegation emphasized the need for creating inclusive environments by ensuring equal representation and empowerment for all, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. To increase female labour force participation, India has enacted occupational safety health and working conditions code, 2020 which entitles women to be employed in all establishments for all types of work with their consent at night time. This provision has already been implemented in underground mines.

In 2017, the Government amended the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which increased the ‘maternity leave with pay protection’ from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for all women working in establishments employing 10 or more workers. This is expected to reduce the motherhood pay gap among the working mothers. To aid migrant workers, India’s innovative policy ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ allows migrants to access their entitled food grains from anywhere in the Public Distribution System network in the country.

A landmark step in fostering inclusion in the workforce is the e-Shram portal, launched to create a national database of unorganized workers, especially migrant and construction workers. This initiative, providing the e-Shram card, enables access to benefits under various social security schemes.

The portal allows an unorganized worker to register himself or herself on the portal on self-declaration basis, under 400 occupations in 30 broad occupation sectors. More than 290 million unorganized workers have been registered on this portal so far.

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Policy&Politics

India to spend USD 3.7 billion to fence Myanmar border

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India plans to spend nearly $3.7 billion to fence its 1,610-km (1,000-mile) porous border with Myanmar within about a decade, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, to prevent smuggling and other illegal activities. New Delhi said earlier this year it would fence the border and end a decades-old visa-free movement policy with coup-hit Myanmar for border citizens for reasons of national security and to maintain the demographic structure of its northeastern region.

A government committee earlier this month approved the cost for the fencing, which needs to be approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, said the source who declined to be named as they were not authorised to talk to the media. The prime minister’s office and the ministries of home, finance, foreign affairs and information and broadcasting did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Myanmar has so far not commented on India’s fencing plans. Since a military coup in Myanmar in 2021, thousands of civilians and hundreds of troops have fled from there to Indian states where people on both sides share ethnic and familial ties. This has worried New Delhi because of risk of communal tensions spreading to India. Some members of the Indian government have also blamed the porous border for abetting the tense situation in the restive north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, abutting Myanmar.

For nearly a year, Manipur has been engulfed by a civil war-like situation between two ethnic groups, one of which shares lineage with Myanmar’s Chin tribe. The committee of senior Indian officials also agreed to build parallel roads along the fence and 1,700 km (1,050 miles) of feeder roads connecting military bases to the border, the source said.

The fence and the adjoining road will cost nearly 125 million rupees per km, more than double that of the 55 million per km cost for the border fence with Bangladesh built in 2020, the source said, because of the difficult hilly terrain and the use of technology to prevent intrusion and corrosion.

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Policy&Politics

ONLY 2-3% RECOVERED FROM $2-3 TN ANNUAL ILLEGAL TRADE THROUGH BANKING: INTERPOL

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However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity.

In a press briefing held on Wednesday, Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock unveiled alarming statistics regarding the extent of undetected money laundering and illegal trade transactions plaguing the global banking network. Stock revealed that over 96% of the money transacted through this network remains undetected, with only 2-3% of the estimated USD 2-3 trillion from illegal trade being tracked and returned to victims.

Interpol, working in conjunction with law enforcement agencies and private financial sectors across its 196 member countries, is committed to combating the rising tide of fraud perpetrated by illicit traders. These criminal activities encompass a wide spectrum, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, arms dealing, and the illicit movement of financial assets.

Stock emphasized the urgent need to establish mechanisms for monitoring transactions within the global banking network. Currently, efforts are underway to engage banking associations worldwide in setting up such a framework. However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity. The lack of real-time information sharing poses a significant obstacle to law enforcement agencies in their efforts to combat money laundering and illegal trade.

Stock underscored the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in exacerbating this problem, citing its use in voice cloning and other fraudulent activities. Criminal organizations are leveraging AI technologies to expand their operations and evade detection on a global scale. Stock emphasized the importance of enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies and private sector banking groups. Realtime information sharing is crucial in the fight against illegal wealth accumulation.

Drawing inspiration from initiatives such as the “Singapore Anti-Scam Centre,” Stock called for the adoption of similar models in other countries to strengthen the collective response to financial crimes. In conclusion, Stock’s revelations underscore the pressing need for concerted action to combat global financial crimes. Enhanced cooperation between public and private sectors, coupled with innovative strategies for monitoring and combating illicit transactions, is essential to safeguarding the integrity of the global financial system.

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Policy&Politics

FM defends Atal Pension Scheme, highlights guaranteed returns

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism, asserting its design based on choice architecture and a guaranteed minimum 8% return. She emphasized the scheme’s opt-out feature, facilitating automatic premium continuation unless subscribers choose otherwise, promoting retirement savings. Sitharaman countered Congress allegations of coercion, stating the APY’s guaranteed returns irrespective of market conditions, supplemented by government subsidies.

Responding to Congress’s claim of scheme misuse, Sitharaman highlighted its intended beneficiaries – the lower-income groups. She criticized Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and emphasized the scheme’s success in targeting the needy. Sitharaman accused Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the APY’s transparent framework. The exchange underscores the political debate surrounding social welfare schemes, with the government defending its approach while opposition parties raise concerns about implementation and efficacy.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s robust defense of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism highlights the ongoing debate over social welfare schemes in India. Sitharaman’s assertion of the APY’s design principles, including its opt-out feature and guaranteed minimum return, underscores the government’s commitment to promoting retirement savings among lower-income groups. The Atal Pension Yojana, named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was launched in 2015 to provide pension benefits to workers in the unorganized sector. It aims to address the significant gap in pension coverage among India’s workforce, particularly those employed in informal and low-income sectors. The scheme offers subscribers fixed pension amounts ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 5,000 per month, depending on their contribution and age at entry, after attaining the age of 60. Sitharaman’s response comes after Congress criticism alleging the APY’s inefficacy and coercive tactics in enrolment.

Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh described the scheme as poorly designed, citing instances of subscribers dropping out due to unauthorized account openings. However, Sitharaman refuted these claims, emphasizing the APY’s transparent and beneficiary-oriented approach. The finance minister’s defense focuses on three key aspects of the APY: Choice Architecture: Sitharaman highlights the opt-out feature of the APY, which automatically continues premium payments unless subscribers choose to discontinue.

This design element aims to encourage long-term participation and ensure consistent retirement savings among subscribers. By simplifying the decision-making process, the scheme seeks to overcome inertia and promote financial discipline among participants. Guaranteed Minimum Return: Sitharaman underscores the APY’s guarantee of a minimum 8% return, irrespective of prevailing interest rates. This assurance provides subscribers with confidence in the scheme’s financial viability and incentivizes long-term savings.

The government’s commitment to subsidizing any shortfall in actual returns further strengthens the attractiveness of the APY as a retirement planning tool. Targeting the Needy: Sitharaman defends the predominance of pension accounts in lower income slabs, arguing that it reflects the scheme’s successful targeting of its intended beneficiaries – the poor and lower-middle class. She criticizes Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and suggests that the party’s opposition to welfare schemes like the APY stems from a disconnect with the needs of marginalized communities. Sitharaman’s rebuttal also addresses broader political narratives surrounding social welfare policies in India.

She accuses Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the transparent and inclusive framework of the APY. The exchange underscores the ideological differences between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress, with each side advocating for their vision of social welfare and economic development. In addition to defending the APY, Sitharaman’s remarks shed light on the broader challenges and opportunities facing India’s pension sector.

Despite significant progress in expanding pension coverage through schemes like the APY, the country still grapples with issues such as financial literacy, informal employment, and pension portability. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach involving government intervention, private sector participation, and civil society engagement.

As India strives to achieve its vision of inclusive and sustainable development, initiatives like the APY play a crucial role in promoting economic security and social equity. Sitharaman’s defense of the scheme underscores the government’s commitment to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations and ensuring their financial well-being in the long run.

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Economic

Regulatory steps will make financial sector strong, but raise cost of capital

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India’s financial system regulator, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), is demonstrating a serious commitment to improving governance and transparency at finance companies and banks, with the RBI’s recent measures aimed at curtailing lenders’ overexuberance, enhancing compliance culture and safeguarding customers.

While the global ratings firm has appreciated the RBI’s “diminishing tolerance for non-compliance, customer complaints, data privacy, governance, know-your-customer (KYC), and anti-money laundering issues”, it has cautioned that increased regulatory risk could impede growth and raise the cost of capital for financial institutions. “Governance and transparency are key weaknesses for the Indian financial sector and weigh on our analysis. The RBI’s new measures are creating a more robust and transparent financial system,” says S&P Global Credit Analyst, Geeta Chugh. “India’s regulator has underscored its commitment to strengthening the financial sector. The drawback will be higher capital costs for institutions,” Chugh cautions.

The RBI measures include restraining IIFL Finance and JM Financial Products from disbursing gold loan and loans against shares respectively and asking Paytm Payments Bank (PPBL) to stop onboarding of new customers. Earlier in December 2020, the RBI suspended HDFC Bank from sourcing new credit card customers after repeated technological outages. These actions are a departure from the historically nominal financial penalties imposed for breaches, S&P Global notes.

Besides, as the global agency points out, the RBI has decided to publicly disclose the key issues that lead to suspensions or other strict actions against concerned entities and become more vocal in calling out conduct that it deems detrimental to the interests of customers and investors. “We believe that increased transparency will create additional pressure on the entire financial sector to enhance compliance and governance practices,” adds Chugh. The global agency has also lauded the RBI’s recent actions demonstrating scant tolerance for any potential window-dressing of accounts.

These actions include the provisioning requirement on alternative investment funds that lend to the same borrower as the bank finance company. Amidst the possibility of some retail loans, such as personal loans, loans against property, and gold loans getting diverted to invest in stock markets and difficulty of ascertaining the end-use of money in these products, S&P Global underlines the faith of market participants that the RBI and market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, want to protect small investors by scrutinizing these activities more cautiously.

On the flip side, at a time of tight liquidity, the RBI’s new measures are likely to limit credit growth in fiscal 2025 (year ending March 2025). “We expect loan growth to decline to 14 per cent in fiscal 2025 from 16 per cent in fiscal 2024, reflecting the cumulative impact of all these actions,” says Chugh. The other side of the story is that stricter rules may disrupt affected entities and increase caution among fintechs and other regulated entities and the RBI’s decision to raise risk weights on unsecured personal loans and credit cards may constrain growth. Household debt to GDP in India (excluding agriculture and small and midsize enterprises) increased to an estimated 24 per cent in March 2024 from 19 per cent in March 2019. Growth in unsecured loans has also been excessive and now forms close to 10 per cent of total banking sector loans.

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