Modi government’s pet e-Sampark database hits privacy roadblock
The Cabinet Secretariat in New Delhi | Source: Wikimedia commons

Days before Supreme Court judgement on privacy, health and railway ministries had raised concerns over sharing citizens’ details for the new database.

Before the Supreme Court delivered its landmark judgement on privacy being a fundamental right, the Narendra Modi government’s massive people-contact database initiative, e-Sampark, had already hit a privacy roadblock.

As the debate over privacy raged on, the health and railway ministries had red-flagged the new initiative due to privacy concerns at a meeting of top officials on 11 August.

e-Sampark is an IT platform for government-to-government and government-to-citizen communications, which will use mailers, outbound dialling, and SMS campaigns.

The government considers e-Sampark key to its communications strategy. It is also considered very useful for targeted campaigns based on geography, gender, occupation etc. The government intends to scale it up in a big way, with plans for a much larger citizen database, besides a comprehensive database of all government functionaries.

Concerns raised

The e-Sampark meeting of top officials was held at the Cabinet Secretariat by a specially-formed Group of Officers, where it was decided that all central and state government departments should share their database of officials by the end of the month with the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MEITY).

The Ministry of Railways committed to sharing the database of its 10 lakh employees, but also conveyed that it “may not be able to share the citizens’ database available with IRCTC due to privacy concerns”.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, meanwhile, pointed to concerns over seeking patient details. It told the Group of Officers that while citizens’ databases may be compiled using patients’ registration data at various hospitals and health centres, this would “need to be examined from the privacy point of view”.

After these ministries expressed reservations, it was decided that ministries may “examine the possibility of dynamically sharing the citizens’ databases at their disposal, after duly examining the privacy concerns involved”.

Other ministries more forthcoming

Many other ministries were more forthcoming with citizens’ data. The rural development ministry, for example, had already shared data of government functionaries, and said it could immediately share details of 10 crore MGNREGA beneficiaries and 2.5 crore beneficiaries from the housing database.

The women & child development ministry offered to share mobile numbers and other details of 25 lakh anganwadi workers.

The human resource development ministry said email addresses of students, especially those studying in centrally-funded higher education institutes, could be collected. The database of Vidya Saksharta volunteers could also be shared, it said. The school education department indicated that was likely to share telephone numbers and email addresses of school teachers.

The panchayati raj ministry was open to sharing the database of sarpanchs and panchayat secretaries, but would take some months to put together details of other elected representatives of panchayats.

Allaying fears

Gaurav Dwivedi, CEO of citizen engagement platform MyGov, who was present at the meeting, sought to allay privacy fears related to the database, specifying that it did not require Aadhaar details. He said database fields had been chosen in such a way that private information like bank accounts, biometric data, and so on were not required.

It was finally decided at the meeting that all ministries and departments would collect and share the complete database of all central government functionaries working in their domain by 31 August, and of all state government functionaries by 30 September.

It was also agreed that privacy issues on the citizens’ database would be examined, and details would be shared with the MEITY.

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