Govt pulled up by RTI body over evasive reply on Aarogya Setu. It clarifies

The Central Information Commission issued a notice to the government and asked it to explain the evasive RTI response over the creation of the Aarogya Setu app, the contact tracing app that has crores of users’ data. The RTI body called the government response “extremely preposterous”.

The RTI application, filed by Saurav Das, had sought information about the creation of the application in light of privacy concerns around it. Government officials from the National Informatics Centre (NIC) and National E-Governance Division (NeGD) and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) declined to comment on the question raised by Das, prompting him to file an appeal with the CIC. The application has been particularly contentious as news reports and data privacy activists have alleged that the app collects information and stores it.

“The CPIO (central public information officer), NIC’s submissions that the entire file related to creation of the App is not with NIC is understandable, but the same submissions if accepted from MeITY, NeGD and NIC in toto, then it becomes more relevant to now find out how an App was created and there is no information with any of the relevant public authorities,” the CIC said in its order dated October 26.

It has further directed NIC, which manages the creation and maintenance of the government’s websites, to explain how the website was created with a extension if the ministry had no information about it.

“The Commission observed that none of the CPIOs provided any information. Therefore, the Commission directs the CPIO, NIC to explain this matter in writing as to how the website was created with the domain name, if they do not have any information about it,” the CIC said.

“None of the CPIOs were able to explain anything regarding who created the App, where are the files, and the same is extremely preposterous,” the order added.

The order has taken cognizance of Supreme Court decisions in Namit Sharma v Union of India 2012 (8) SCALE 593 in which it was held that the “purpose and object for the enactment of the RTI Act was to make the government more transparent and accountable to the public and to ensure access to information to every citizen from the public authorities”.

MeitY officials, however, said that the government will comply with the CIC’s orders.

“As per the orders of the CIC, CPIOs of MeitY, NeGD and NIC have been directed to appear on 24th November 2020. MeitY is taking necessary steps to comply with the orders of the CIC,” MeitY said in a statement.

The statement added that the app was developed in record time to combat the prevailing Covid-19 outbreak and its source code and the names of those associated with developing the app are available in the open domain.

“With regard to the above, it is clarified that there should be no doubt with regard to the Aarogya Setu App and its role in helping contain Covid-19 pandemic in India. Aarogya Setu App was launched by Government of India in public private partnership mode to bring people of India together in its fight against Covid-19,” the ministry said.

“Since 2nd April 2020, regular press releases and updates have been issued on Aarogya Setu App including making the source code available in Open domain on 26th May 2020. The names of all those associated with the development of the App and management of the App ecosystem at various stages was shared when the code was released in Open/Public Domain and the same was shared widely in media also,” the ministry added.

The CIC has asked for a clarification about who created and maintained the application, especially considering the platform is designed, developed and hosted by NIC.

“Furthermore, as per the website, it is mentioned that the content is owned, updated and maintained by the MyGov, MeitY. Therefore… directed to explain in writing who is the concerned CPIO to explain regarding MyGov, MeiTY maintaining the app. The platform is designed, developed and hosted by the National Informatics Centre, Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology, Government of India, then how is it that they do not have any information about creation of the App,” the Commission said in its order.

The Commission has directed the CPIOs of the agencies to appear before the bench on November 24.

“The Commission is constrained to issue a show cause notice to the concerned CPIOs,” it added. It has asked the three CPIOs to make written submissions detailing their role in creation of the website with the domain name “The CPIO, NeGD shall also explain the delay of about 2 months in replying to the RTI application. The Commission directs the above-mentioned CPIOs to appear before the bench on 24.11.2020 at 01.15 pm to show cause as to why action should not be initiated against them under Section 20 of the RTI Act. The CPIOs are also directed to send a copy of all supporting documents upon which they choose to rely upon during the hearing,” the order said.

It has also asked why a penalty under the RTI Act should not be imposed on them “for prima facie obstruction of information and providing an evasive reply”.

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