Govt endangering lives of RTI applicants by revealing postal address on its website
RTI applications and replies provided by PIOs, decisions of FAAs and CIC that are uploaded on relevant websites continue to reveal details of applicant, including postal address despite a HC directive and several directives by DoPT. Is it not dangerous for the applicant’s safety at the backdrop of threats and killings of RTI activists?
As a sequel to a Kolkata High Court directive in 2013 and a couple of orders by the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), all public authorities have been asked to refrain from uploading the postal address of the Right to Information (RTI) applicant. This postal address is mentioned in every application and in most replies by public information officers (PIOs), first appellate authority (FAA) and in Central Information Commission (CIC) decisions too. However, these orders are being blatantly flouted, thus putting the individual RTI applicant to possible risk of life and safety.
This situation has arisen due to series of DoPT’s circulars to public authorities to upload replies under RTI as a part of suo motu disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. Since these documents are uploaded, as is, the personal information of the applicant is inadvertently being made public.
On 23 March, 2016, the DoPT appealed to the public to send their suggestions on the manner in which the disclosure of RTI applications, replies by the PIOs, appellate authorities (AA) and CIC decisions should be uploaded on the relevant official websites. The DoPT in its draft (see here: OM dated 23/03/2016
,) has yet again recommended, “…the public authorities may note that while pro-actively disclosing RTI applications and appeals received and responses thereto on their website, the personal information of an individual should not be disclosed.”
Earlier to this, regarding guidelines of implementation of suo motu disclosures, the Department had issued a circular on 15 April 2014, which stated, “All public authorities shall proactively disclose RTI applications and appeals received and their responses on the website maintained by public authorities with search facility based on key words. RTI applications and appeals received and their responses relating to personal information of an individual may not be disclosed, as they do not serve any public interest.”
The DoPT further reiterated on 21 October 2014 that, “RTI applications and appeals received and their responses relating to the personal information of an individual may not be disclosed if they do not serve public interested.”
Earlier, on 20 March 2013, in the case of Avinesh Goenka vs Union of India, the Kolkata High Court had directed that personal information of an applicant should not be disclosed.
The HC order states: “The writ petitioner claiming to be an activist in the field of right to information, has approached us by filing the present writ petition with the prayer, the authority should not insist upon the detailed address of the applicant as and when any application is made under the Right to Information Act.”
“He apprehends, the interested parties would cause a threat to the activist and in fact there had been past incidents of unnatural deaths of activist in the field, presumably by the interested persons having vested interest to conceal the information that is asked for by the activist.”
“The petitioner submits, the authority may not insist upon the detailed address particularly when the applicant would provide a particular post box number that would automatically conceal their identity to the public at large.”
“We have considered the relevant provisions of the statute. Section 6(2) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 would clearly provide an applicant making request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.”
“Looking to the said provision, we find logic in the submission of the petitioner. When the legislature thought it fit, the applicant need not disclose any personal detail, the authority should not insist upon his detailed whereabouts particularly when post box number is provided for that would establish contact with him and the authority. In case, the authority would find any difficulty with the post box number, they may insist upon personal details. However, in such case, it would be the solemn duty of the authority to hide such information and particularly from their website so that people at large would not know of the details. We thus dispose of this writ petition by malting the observations as above.”
Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator for Access to Information Program at Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), says, “There is no clarity on what constitutes 'personal information' in the context of RTI. In countries like the United Kingdom, all names are deleted from the freedom of information (FOI) requests and responses. Please see examples on the FOI logs accessible at: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/freedom-of-information-disclosure-log
. In the UK, their data protection law prevents public authorities from making names of individuals on either side of the information accessing process public.
“To the best of my knowledge, the only statutory regime for personal data protection in India is afforded by the Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information), Rules 2011 notified under the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Under these Rules ‘sensitive personal data’ includes (Rule 3): password, financial information such as bank account or credit/debit card details, physical, physiological and mental health condition, sexual orientation, medical records & history, biometric information etc. However, information that is freely available in the public domain or accessible under the RTI Act will not be treated as ‘sensitive personal data or information’. For example, names and addresses of citizens registered as voters are easily available on the website of the Chief Electoral Officers. These will not be treated as ‘sensitive personal information’, he says.
“Under the 2011 IT Rules, everybody that collects ‘sensitive personal data/ information’ of the kind mentioned above is required to put in place various measures for ensuring the security of such information. The scope and shortcomings of these Rules are examined in depth in the report submitted by the Justice A. P. Shah led Group of Experts on Privacy in 2012
“Clearly, the definition of 'sensitive personal data/ information' contained in the 2011 IT Rules will not apply to names and addresses of RTI applicants. So there is no law in force that can protect such personal information. It is in this legal vacuum that recommendations have to be made to the DoPT about protecting personal data,” Mr Nayak concluded.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of
Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet – The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.