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‘No data’ and other tactics: How the government is dodging RTI queries on health pacts with Big Tech

In April last year, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Jodhpur, and Microsoft India announced a collaborative project on remote healthcare. In February, the central health ministry’s telemedicine platform e-Sanjeevani, hosted on the Amazon Web Services’ cloud, reported having served 10 crore patients. Tamil Nadu, meanwhile, has partnered with Google for its Population Health Registry, aimed at creating a comprehensive health database of the state’s population.

These are all agreements involving technology behemoths, public resources, taxpayer money, sensitive health data and critical services that serve all Indians. Yet, the fine print of these collaborations is not available in the public domain.

The authors of this article found that the government stonewalled Right to Information queries seeking information on contracts between public authorities and private technology companies on digital health initiatives. Though the Right to Information Act as well as the judiciary have emphasised transparency, public authorities employed a range of tactics to refuse data from claiming that it was “personal information” to transferring and disposing of applications.

This does not bode well for public health or the public interest. Partnerships with “Big Tech” companies have often sparked data privacy and transparency concerns, such as the misuse of data to profile users or for commercial purposes. There is also the risk of monopolistic practices developing. For example, in 2022, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance noted that the big players with vast repositories of consumer and business data resort to tracking and profiling end users to strengthen their position and prevent new players from entering the market.

In 2013, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions issued an order directing public authorities to disclose all information related to public-private partnership contracts under Section 4 of the Right to Information Act. Section 4 deals with the obligations of public authorities. Still, more often than not, public-private partnership contracts are not available in the public domain.

In October, the Delhi High Court, while ruling in the case of Prashant Reddy vs CPIO, modified an order passed by the Central Information Commission and directed the Unique Identification Authority of India to disclose its contracts with external organisations to handle grievance redressal under the Aadhaar Act. CPIO refers to the Central Public Information Officer, the public officials who deal with information requests.

The court held that “complete transparency” was necessary in the way the contracts had been awarded.

Dec 09,2023

Source: Support Scroll