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The dangers of a centralised database for justice system

It will replicate caste bias and violate liberty and privacy of citizens.

The Supreme Court’s e-committee, headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud, is tasked with integrating digital technologies in courts to enhance judicial productivity and efficiency. In the third phase of this project, the expert sub-committee has published a draft document to articulate its vision to put in place an interoperable digital architecture that, among other things, facilitates “easy” data-sharing among all pillars of the criminal justice system — the police, prosecutors, prisons and courts. The Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS), launched in 2019, is set to be fully operational, and will replace the existing need-based physical exchange of information. It will integrate existing centralised data systems such as the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS), e-prisons and e-courts, promising “seamless exchange of live data” among these branches. Critics have raised privacy concerns, given the absence of data protection laws, and questioned the implications of the data being housed in the home ministry for judicial independence.

A neglected danger is that this “seamless exchange” will likely whitewash the biased and illegal process of data creation at the level of police stations, through the dual myths of objectivity and neutrality of technology.

Police stations across India have historically maintained registers of “habitual offenders” (HOs). Such registers today are primarily made up of persons who belong to Vimukta Janjatis, communities which had been criminalised by the British through the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871. The caste system offered colonial authorities the rationale to identify HOs. Police branding of communities as HOs resulted in extensive surveillance and intrusive policing as a form of daily existence.

The legacy has been sustained post-independence through state laws allowing the police to maintain records of the lives and movements of a large number of people, without regulating the breadth, purpose or means of such information collection. The gravest injustice of being labelled as a HO is that it hinges entirely on police suspicion, discretion and conventional knowledge, which are informed by caste prejudices. Names and details of first-time offenders and juveniles are also included in these registers. The inclusion of juveniles contravenes the principle of fresh start espoused in the Juvenile Justice Act. Utilising ambiguous, outdated provisions to create biased offline databases with no oversight is undoubtedly illegal. Using these provisions to create permanent digital databases elevates the illegality and harm.

For years, the HO registers were hidden inside police stations and the information therein was usually shared between police stations within a town or a district. With CCTNS, the state police found an opportunity to digitise this data, linking it to a common database accessible across the state, and extending its use to crime and criminal mapping and predictive policing. Several states thus began adding supplementary information, such as iris and face scans to existing databases. In Madhya Pradesh, besides information about individuals’ habits, HO’s alleged method of committing crimes, their property, their associates and places they frequent, the police have begun feeding information about family members into CCTNS. The mere fact of such an individual having an HO record tilts the scales of justice against them. The existence of HO registers is a ready refuge for the police both while looking for a person to pin a crime on as well as manufacturing one.

However, given that the system cannot yet “flow freely”, police have to officially submit these records before the courts, giving the accused the right to challenge the correctness of the record. But an interoperable system creates potential for this information to be used to the detriment of accused persons without their knowledge.

The e-committee’s vision to integrate all existing data systems to make ICJS one expansive centralised data system would essentially feed and sustain the myth of criminality of a “habitual offender”.

Even if we could take away the caste-informed biases of data, a challenge insurmountable without annihilating the caste system itself, we must still consider the risks of centralised, interoperable and permanent digital databases on privacy and liberties of individuals. Efficiency and digitisation cannot recede the rights and dignities of marginalised individuals who are often the subjects of our criminal justice system.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2021 under the title ‘Efficiency vs dignity’. The writers are associated with the Bhopal-based Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project.

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