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Why Government Needs Private Data of Litigants, Lawyers to Institutionalize Pro Bono Legal Aid

Why Government Needs Private Data of Litigants, Lawyers to Institutionalize Pro Bono Legal Aid
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By Sumit Saxena

With the ever increasing pendency of cases, getting access to justice is becoming harder especially for the poor, who find it extremely difficult to get quality legal assistance. To bridge this gap, the Department of Justice (DoJ), launched a mobile application on February 19, “Nyaya Bandhu”, a mobile application aimed at providing pro bono legal aid to the marginalised section of the society. The government launched the application as a technical solution to bring legal services to high-need communities throughout the country, as technology has become progressively more pervasive in the society. But, after taking a close look at the application, experts believe that a crucial feature, the main software interface, on the mobile application seems to be invading the privacy of both litigants and advocates. Nyaya Bandhu is readily available on the Google Play store.

According to the government, the premise of using technology will allow marginalised individuals (referred to as “Applicants”), seeking quality legal advice and counsel, to connect via mobile application with “Advocates” who have volunteered their time and services on this platform. The DoJ reckons the application as a crucial step in supporting the mandate of enhancing “access to justice”. Though, the narrative is very appealing, but there is more to this than meets the eye. The first interface on the mobile application, the introductory screen after downloading the application, does not permit an individual to proceed with registration, unless complete access to photos, media, and files on the device or handset is not handed over to the application.  The message reads, “Allow Nyaya Bandhu to access photos, media, and files on your device?”

Usually, apps seeking access to personal data to map user’s digital behaviour and then accordingly promote various digital marketing campaigns.  Mobile apps like Amazon, What’s app, Swiggy, Ola, Uber, Facebook, Flipkart etc., send marketing content to promote on users device, after accessing data on the phone.

Once, access granted, the data on the handset stands exposed and it could be easily transferred on the servers hosting this application. Despite deleting the mobile application, the data transferred on the server during the usage of the application would not cease to exist. Therefore, the question arises, if Nyaya Bandhu, is meant to act as a bridge between lawyers and litigants, then what is the purpose of giving access to photos, media, and files, and allowing the application’s software to traverse through reams of data on the handset?

Cyber experts believe that since, it is a new mobile application; the developer could have made it a simple platform without accessing private data of either litigants or lawyers. Hussain Saifi, Head, Hacker Kernel, a mobile phone application and website developing organization based in Bhopal, believes that Nyaya Bandhu seeking access to private data is very similar to a most commonly used feature on WhatsApp, one of the largest social networking mobile application.  He said, “This is a feature similar to WhatsApp wherein video calling, sharing pictures, location, and contact, is usually very common. This feature could help in mapping user’s digital pattern, an important aspect for digital marketing. But, what is its utility in an app made to promote pro bono legal services. If bridging the gap between litigants and advocate is the essence of this app, then the government should ask the developer to rework on the features. It is completely possible to make a simple app without accessing user details.”

Globally managing data has become extremely difficult, as episodes of hacking have been reported from highly secured government websites too.  Recognizing data security, several mobile application developers are using multiple layer security arrangements. But, it is unclear, what kind of data security system has been built for this legal services app.  Ajit Srivastava, CEO, Mediamix, a start-up on developing mobile applications based in Delhi said, “Recently, Facebook introduced some security measures regarding uploading of data on its app and website. The users have been granted preferential security arrangements wherein they can regulate the mobile application access to their data. For example, if a lawyer or litigant does not want to share his media and files on the app, or keep it hidden from the public view. Without a strong security net, the government should not integrate this feature on the application, as it has the potential to become a threat to data on the device.”

According to government data, 777 lawyers have already downloaded the mobile application. India Legal spoke with lawyers regarding the utility of the mobile application and inquired about their willingness to share personal data in order to provide pro bono legal services to the poor. Nikhil Majithia, an advocate in Supreme Court, said “I am willing to give pro bono legal aid, but not willing to share the data on my handset with government or anybody. How is it going to benefit the end-user? The government can register lawyers on this mobile application as per their specialization without having access to their personal data. The Uttar Pradesh government has a legal aid programme wherein litigants can call a toll free number and register their query, and then a specialized lawyer is allocated to assist them.”

The legal fraternity is somehow not convinced with the functionality of this mobile application. The government promises to recognize lawyers who participate in this legal aid initiative via the app, as “Pro Bono Legal Service” as a concept has not gained much momentum in the country. Through this mobile application, the government is willing to establish an institutional structure to promote pro bono legal services for the poor. Sidhant Kapoor, a young lawyer practicing in Delhi High Court, after having a firsthand experience of the mobile application said: “I was excited to learn that government is willing to recognize lawyers who show serious commitment to pro bono legal services. But, what is this with giving access to data on my handset. Why would the government want to access my data in order to register me for pro bono services? It does not make sense at all. I am not willing to use this application.”

Speaking to India Legal on the condition of anonymity, an officer associated with Nyaya Bandhu, said: “Many lawyers, in their private practice, provide free legal assistance to poor and underprivileged clients. But, it remains an ad hoc arrangement; through this app government is willing to replace it with a professional institutional structure. The Government of India has, for the first time, launched an initiative to encourage the culture of pro bono.”

This reporter queried the official regarding the utility to access the data on the phone. The official said “We have come across these questions regarding the security of data, but let me assure you that we are not trying to snoop on anybody. It is a technical requirement in the functionality of the application.”

In one of the terms and conditions of the mobile application usage, the government has stepped back from any liability arising out of the application. “The Department of Justice shall not be liable for any loss or damage resulting from or arising in connection with any act or omission made in reliance of any advice, and/or the illegal, incorrect or inappropriate use of Pro Bono App, Pro Bono App content, and any advice, information, material, software or other items or services provided through the Pro Bono App, by any party,” reads one of the terms and conditions on the application.

Pavan Duggal, a renowned cyber law expert, said: “Seeking access to photos, media, and files via this mobile application is violation of IT Act under section 79. It is also an invasion of privacy. Why does the government need this feature on the mobile application? Where would government store the data of lawyers and litigants, would it be on government’s server; on the server of the developer, or on the server of the service provider? The government needs to be transparent and accountable on this. For connecting litigants and lawyers, what is the need to have access to personal details of users?”

As per the government data, 777 advocates and 677 litigants have registered on the mobile application, and five cases have been processed. India Legal has emailed questions on the above issues to the Secretary, Department of Justice, for an official response, but the reply is yet to come.

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