The Collectors

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A proposed new criminal identification law caused a stir in India over privacy concerns and fears that it will be used to target dissenters, the BBC reported this week.

Last week, parliament approved the Criminal Procedure (Identification) bill, which would require detained individuals to share sensitive data, such as iris and retina scans. The bill is now being sent to the president for his approval.

India already has legislation that allows police to collect photographs, fingerprints and footprint impressions. The 1920 Identification of Prisoners Act, however, is limited to people who have been convicted, those out on bail, and those charged with offenses punishable with a year or more in prison.

But the proposed law will apply to anyone arrested or detained. It will allow authorities to collect fingerprints, behavioral attributes – such as signatures and handwriting – and other “biological samples.” Critics posited that the latter could mean the collection of DNA and blood, which can now only be procured with a warrant.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government defended the legislation, saying it will modernize policing and help solve crimes swiftly.

But opposition politicians and human rights groups called it draconian and said that it hands over too much personal data to the government.

They also noted that India does not have data protection laws and that the contentious bill “lacks any safeguards to prevent the arbitrary collection or the misuse of data.” Opponents added that the draft legislation runs counter to India’s constitution and a 2017 supreme court ruling that declared privacy as “the constitutional core of human dignity.”

Another chief concern is that the identification bill could be used by the government to go after activists, protesters and dissenters. Previous reports have accused Modi’s government of using the Israeli spyware, Pegasus, to snoop on political leaders – a charge it denies.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, meanwhile, has been stalled in parliament since 2018, and critics say the current version has been watered down so that it doesn’t limit the government’s ability to access sensitive data.

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