Even as it earns praise within India and outside for its deft handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the ‘flattening’ of the infection curve, the Kerala government is in the dock for allegedly breaching privacy of 1.75 lakh people under quarantine in the state by striking a deal with a US-based tech firm to handle the data compiled from them.
Kerala: What is the Sprinklr controversy?
Earlier this month, Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, at a press conference in the state capital, mounted an offensive against the ruling LDF government accusing it of allowing the US-based tech firm Sprinklr to collate and handle the health data of 1.75 lakh people under quarantine without taking their individual consent. The data, including details of their symptoms and underlying health conditions, was compiled by workers at the grassroot level using a tool developed by Sprinklr with the aim of assisting doctors and medical officials in making an informed choice about possible hospitalisation.
The Congress-led Opposition charged that the government did not follow due procedures in appointing Sprinklr and thereby risked the transfer of crucial health data of thousands of people to pharmaceutical companies. It questioned why the administration took the assistance of a foreign firm when there were institutions like Centre for Development of Imaging technology (CDIT) and Kerala State IT Mission that can do the same job. Chennithala said the decision to appoint Sprinklr, owned by a Keralite named Ragy Thomas, was taken unilaterally with the knowledge of the chief minister without obtaining clearances from departments like law, local self-government and finance.
How did the LDF government respond?
The state government defended the move by stating that the company’s tool was offered free-of-cost as a software-as-a-service (SaaS) and that the firm was owned by a Keralite. The IT department said the data was being collected on a massive scale and therefore needed the intervention of an application which can collate it in a quick way and help analyse it. Sprinklr’s SaaS tool was already ready and therefore had to be just customised to meet the state’s needs.
Additionally, the agreement order signed with the company stated, “Every employee participates in mandatory data protection and information security trainings and is formally obliged to data secrecy. Sprinklr established a data protection steering committee of key functional leaders throughout the company and Sprinklr also appointed an experienced Data Protection Officer.”
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Following the allegations, the government changed the domain name for the entry of data from citizencenter.sprinklr.com to citizencenter.kerala.gov.in.
Is there truth in the allegations?
From the looks of the non-disclosure and service agreements signed with the company, it certainly appears that the ownership of the health data remains with the Kerala government, even though it may have been temporarily hosted on servers owned by Sprinklr. There is no exchange of financial favours in the arrangement.
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But questions still remain how and why Sprinklr was singularly appointed for the task without even putting out a global tender. Since the exercise involves confidential data of thousands of people, it begs to ask the question why the government did not feel the need to make the deal public.
What is the political relevance of the controversy?
The Opposition Congress-led UDF, perturbed at the praise the CPM-led government has been receiving for its handling of the pandemic, has sensed an opening in the battle ranks with which it can target the chief minister. Since the IT department, which signed the deal with Sprinklr, is held by the chief minister, the Opposition believes the buck stops with him. With Assembly elections just a year away, the Opposition believes the row can help it politically to target the ruling coalition.
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