Kerala High Court today heard a plea regarding the state government's contract with US-based tech firm Sprinklr that is aimed at analyzing data based on details of people under surveillance in the state due to the coronavirus pandemic. The court raised certain questions and asked the government to respond by April 24.
The Congress-led opposition in the state has unleashed an attack on the ruling Left - specially Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan - over the government's contract which includes details of around 1.75 lakh people from the state.
The High Court questioned the state on why sanctions were not sought from the Law Department before the contract was signed with the foreign firm, since it involves details of citizens. The High Court also sought a response over the appointment of a foreign firm, instead of the government's Information Technology agencies who are doing the required data analysis.
The state government's counsel however said the data collected did not constitute sensitive personal information even as the 2-judge bench stressed that data confidentiality is of utmost importance in the present world.
The court, however, appreciated the state government's role in dealing with the contagion.
According to opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, who has been addressing frequent press conferences on this issue, "There was no informed consent of the ordinary people while passing on the information to a private company based in US. Those under the state's surveillance were asked by health workers to answer a questionnaire of 41 questions. The state then collected this data from the health workers. But nowhere were people told that this data will be handed over to a foreign company."
The opposition also raised concerns on how the contract was signed without cabinet approval or nod from the law ministry.
These allegations come at a time when Kerala has been focusing on containing the spread of coronavirus and flattening the curve. The state government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, has also earned appreciation over their handling of the pandemic.
Pinarayi Vijayan denied the allegations at one of the press conferences last week and said, "Various government bodies have been working on the ground, using all their machinery to contain the spread of coronavirus. It is extremely important to do a quick analysis of the data we are receiving to ensure precautionary measures and to take timely action to contain the spread. Sprinkler is run by a Malayali - Ragy Thomas. Their data analysis expertise is being used for timely intervention by the state."
According to the chief minister, Sprinklr had offered its services free of cost and out of goodwill. The data is owned by the state, he said.
Sprinklr incidentally has recently worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) as a pro-bono technology partner, along with other tech firms, to power their COVID-19 Dashboard and WHO "Health Alert" bot on Facebook Messenger. Kerala government started sharing data with Sprinklr on March 25, although the purchase order was signed on April 2.
The state government's Information Technology department, in a press release, had explained that the details collected through the five forms are being analysed by Sprinklr. This includes details of people who had returned from other countries, other states, and details of health workers dealing with patients, the details of highly vulnerable groups in our country and the details collected by health workers who are communicating with those under surveillance on a daily basis.
"Initially the details were provided at Citizencentre.Sprinklr.com. With another subdomain of Citizencentre.kerala.gov.in ready, the details are now provided through this. Irrespective of the domain, the data is stored in Mumbai's Amazon Web Server Cloud. The state data centres do not have access to this facility, and instead use VMware cloud. State's CDIT has access to Amazon Web Server Cloud and has been directed to expand its capacity. The non-disclosure clause in the agreement ensures that these details will not be used for anything else and will be under the ownership of Kerala government", the press release read.
Hours after the court's observation, the state government appointed a two-member committee of former bureaucrats to examine if the privacy of personal and sensitive data of individuals has been protected under the agreements entered into with Sprinklr and whether adequate procedures have been followed while finalizing the deal with the tech firm. The committee will also look into whether deviations, if any, are fair, justified and reasonable considering the extraordinary and critical situation the state was facing at the relevant period and to offer suggestions for future guidance.
The opposition has, however, demanded a CBI probe into the issue, alleging data theft and corruption.