The issue around digital privacy, or rather the lack of it, has been a hot topic of debate in India and has even made its way to the Parliamentary lobbies. In India, personal data is collected and stored by various merchants, big tech companies and other entities through the innumerable digital applications and devices that people use. From digital payment and ecommerce applications to social media platforms, personal data collection and storage is happening en masse, all while individuals still scramble to understand its repercussions. What’s worse — this personal, often sensitive information including financial and medical records, of millions of Indians is available for sale online through “data brokers” who have put a price tag to these records.
WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH MUNICIPAL WORKERS IN INDIA
Going a step further, there is an urgent need to look into this invasion of digital privacy from the lens of India’s municipal workers. Over the past few years, there have been several news pieces buried amid the bulk of eye-catching headlines, about municipal workers across several Indian cities being made to wear smartwatches to track their daily working hours. As per news reports, municipal corporations in cities like Nagpur and Chandigarh have made it mandatory for sanitation workers to wear GPS-enabled watches that are used to monitor their arrival at work, attendance record, number of hours clocked at work and the end of their shifts. The reports suggest that some of these watches have in-built cameras and microphones to allow the supervisors to monitor them by the minute. To make things worse, any discrepancy in the recorded number of hours at work is reportedly manifesting itself in the form of workers’ salary deductions. Thus, workers have been protesting the use of these digital trackers as being humiliating and violating their privacy in the garb of improving work efficiency.
INFRINGEMENT OF WORKERS’ RIGHT TO PRIVACY
The fact that sanitation workers are often unaware of the ramifications of surveillance of this kind, as is enabled by these digital trackers, goes to show how their informed and aware consent is not likely sought while implementing this technology. In this case in particular, the employer being the State, these rules amount to digital snooping on citizens by a government. This form of a ‘surveillance state’ directly impinges on citizens’ right to privacy, a fundamental right that flows from Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (K.S. Puttaswamy & Anr. v. Union of India & Ors.). While one can argue that this right is not absolute and there can be certain grounds for restricting the same (legitimate state interest, necessary and proportionate to achieve the interest, among other things), this is a justification that would hold up when a comprehensive and well-defined legislation is in place to regulate the collection and storage of such personal data of citizens.
EXISTING LEGAL FRAMEWORK ON PERSONAL DATA PROTECTION
At present, the only legislation that to some extent deals with the handling of personal data of individuals is the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2008, and the subsequent rules framed by the government. However, the coverage of this law is very limited in that it does not apply to collection and use of personal data by various entities (Section 43A of the IT Act 2000 recognises personal data dealings by a ‘body corporate’ and the compensation in that regard). It primarily focusses on information security as opposed to personal data protection. There exist other sectoral, subject-specific laws that regulate data dissemination in the respective segments, however, these are very narrow in their scope of protection. Further, while the Privacy Rules 2011 define what comes under the meaning of personal information and sensitive personal data, but how far the data collecting entities adhere to compliance standards and rules on storage and disclosure, grievance redressal and user safety is a big question mark.
The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, can be viewed as a step in the direction of chalking out the contours of digital privacy and collection, storage and dissemination of personal data of individuals in India. To begin with, the bill seeks to define what all would come within the ambit of ‘personal data’, and would govern the processing of personal data by governments, Indian and foreign companies. This is especially significant as it would plug the gaps that exist in the IT Act and rules subsequent thereof. Further, it would also outline the rights of individuals with respect to their personal data and the remedies available. However, it has been in the pipeline for some time, with objections having been raised over several aspects of the proposed law.
THE WHYS AND HOWS BEHIND THIS DIGITAL SURVEILLANCE
The recent mandate by city municipal corporations requiring workers to wear the digital trackers (Human Efficiency Tracking Systems, as they’re being referred to) takes on another hue when viewed from the lens of worker exploitation. Reports suggest that the trackers are being used to map the daily hours of every employee, and failure to wear the watch at all times or getting disconnected could result in salary deductions. Also, in the event of device malfunction, the workers would have to bear the brunt of the pay cut despite having clocked their daily hours. How and when such grievances would be addressed and dealt with is not very clear. Thus, workers’ woes take a backseat in the productivity and efficiency-focused surveillance work environment. Since municipal workers and sanitation staff employed by city corporations are usually not very tech-savvy or comfortable with tech-based gadgets, they are wary of how the system works. It can result in unnecessary anxiety regarding loss of earnings due to technical glitches.
Another issue is the alleged in-built cameras and microphones in these trackers. For workers who are not very well versed in such gadgets, the fear of being watched constantly could be debilitating, more so in the case of female workers. Their movement at work is tracked down to minutes, even seconds, linking the same to productivity targets and goals. Failure to meet these targets and minute-to-minute monitoring requirements could lead to reduction in the month-end salary payments. Automated workplace management is a concern that is prevalent across countries, and a parallel can be seen in the surveillance systems implemented by tech giant Amazon at its warehouses across the United States. The hazards of this surveillance system, like higher rate of injuries at workplace or even leaving workers without bathroom breaks, is similar to what is being witnessed in the case of India’s digitally-tracked municipal workers. The only major difference in the above-mentioned sets of scenarios is the place of occurrence and the entity engaging in worker surveillance. In India, the State is the data collector, often times undertaking this feat with the help of a third-party IT services firm. This makes the workers’ situation more precarious as their personal, sensitive information could be easily accessible to such contractual firms, especially in the absence of a data privacy law to regulate the same.
With increasing technological advancement and innovation, the cost of such surveillance methods has dropped, thus making it easier and more convenient for employers to adopt and implement. In contrast, this weakens the position of workers and the unions advocating for them as there is limited knowledge and legal recourse in this regard.
Thus, these GPS trackers are problematic on various fronts- they infringe individual privacy, operate in regulatory grey areas (as there is no proper oversight) and finally and most importantly, they constantly dehumanize the workers by treating them in a manner similar to bonded labour and robots. The human element of taking into account genuine issues being faced by employees or the context as to why they may not have been available on the tracking systems throughout the day (like poor internet connection, device malfunction, etc.) is completely ignored and disregarded.