There’s more to India’s woes than data localisation

The personal data protection bill is yet to become a law and the debate is still rife on the costs and benefits of data localisation. It is yet to be seen officially if the government is going to mandate localisation in the data protection bill and to whom it is going to apply. Regardless of whether or not data localization ends up enshrined in the law, it is worth taking a step back and asking why the government is pushing for it in the first place.

For context, localisation is the practice of storing domestic data on domestic soil. One of the most credible arguments for why it should be the norm is that it will help law enforcement. Most platforms that facilitate messaging are based in the US (think WhatsApp and Messenger). Because of the popularity of these ‘free services,’ a significant amount of the world’s communication takes place on these platforms. This also includes communication regarding crimes and violation of the law.

This is turning out to be a problem because in cases of law violations, communications on these platforms might end up becoming evidence that Indian law enforcement agencies may want to access. The government has already made multiple efforts to make this process easier for law enforcement. In December 2018, the ministry of home affairs issued an order granting powers of “interception, monitoring, and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer,” to ten central agencies, to protect security and sovereignty of India.

But this does not help in cases where the information may be stored outside the agencies’ jurisdiction. So, in cases where Indian law enforcement agencies want to access data held by US companies, they are obliged to abide by lawful procedures in both the US and India.

The bottleneck here is that there is no mechanism that can keep up with this phenomenon (not counting the CLOUD Act, as India has not entered into an executive agreement under it).

Indian requests for access to data form a fair share, owing to India’s large population and growing internet penetration. Had there been a mechanism that provided for these requests in a timely enforcement through the provision of data. Most requests are US-bound, thanks to the dominance of US messaging, search, and social media apps. Each request has to justify ‘probable cause by US standards.’ This, combined with the number of requests from around the world, weighs down on the system and makes it inefficient. People have called the MLATs broken and there have been several calls for reform of the system.

A comprehensive report by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) found that the MLAT process on global average takes 10 months for law enforcement requests to receive electronic evidence. 10 months of waiting for evidence is simply too long for two reasons. Firstly, in cases of law enforcement, time tends to be of the essence. Secondly, countries such as India have a judicial system with a huge backlog of cases. 10month-long timelines to access electronic evidence make things worse.

Access to data is an international bottleneck for law enforcement. The byproduct of the mass adoption of social media and messaging is that electronic criminal evidence for all countries is now concentrated in the US.

The inefficiency of MLATs is one of the key reasons why data-sharing agreements are rising in demand and in supply, and why the CLOUD Act was so well-received as a solution that reduced the burden on MLATs.

Countries need to have standards that can fasten access to data for law enforcement, an understanding of what kinds of data are permissible to be shared across borders, and common standards for security.

India’s idea is that localizing data will help with access to it for law enforcement, at least eventually down the line. It may compensate for not being a signatory to the Budapest Convention. It is unclear how effective localisation will be. Facebook’s stored in India is Facebook’s data.

Facebook is still an American company and should still be subject to US standards of data-sharing, which are one of the toughest in the world and include an independent judge assessing the probable cause, refusing bulk collection or overreach. This is before we take into account encryption.

For Indian law enforcement, the problem in this whole mess is not where the data is physically stored. It is the process that makes access to it inefficient. Localisation is not a direct fix, if it proves to be one at all. The answer lies in better data-sharing arrangements, based on plurilateral terms. The sooner this realized, the faster the problems can be resolved. data still

Rohan is a policy analyst at the technology and policy programme at The Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.

This article was first published in the Deccan Chronicle.