News Brief

Kerala’s Communist Government Releases Info On Deal With US Firm To Store Covid-19 Data After Outrage, Gets Exposed Even More

M R Subramani

Apr 16, 2020, 05:22 PM | Updated 05:22 PM IST

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
  • The release of letters on a Covid-19 data deal with a US firm by the Kerala government has raised more questions than settling the controversy.
  • The Kerala government’s move to use a mobile application developed by a US-based firm to record details of its citizens under surveillance for symptoms of coronavirus (Covid-19) has sparked off a political controversy.

    Sprinklr, the US company floated in 2010 by Ragi Thomas, who hails from Mavelikkara in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, uses the citizen experience management platform to help the government record data on Covid-19 patients and suspects.

    The US firm had offered its services as 'donation' but the purchase order said the customer had no obligation to pay. However, after its implementation is completed, the company would provide the customer with the pricing for necessary Sprinklr services.

    At that time, the Kerala government — the customer — could use its discretion to determine the amount and, if any, would be paid to the US firm for its services.

    On 10 April, opposition and senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala objected to Kerala data on coronavirus patients and suspects being fed into Sprinklr’s servers.

    Chennithala, who heads the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) opposition in the state assembly, alleged that data was being uploaded from ward levels and wondered what its implications would be.

    Though Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) brushed aside Chennithala’s charges, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) released letters of affirmation — first sent on 11 April and the second on 12 April.

    These letters were uploaded on the state government’s IT Department website. The release of the letters has raised more questions than settling the controversy.

    There are a lot of differences between the first letter of affirmation and the second. This, critics point out, shows that the Vijayan government and Sprinklr were put on the backfoot by the charges raised by the opposition.

    Within a space of 24 hours, Sprinklr’s tone changed from being assertive to meek submission.

    The content also underwent changes in tune with the shift in the US company’s stand. The letters of affirmation were regarding how the data would be collected, used, stored and rights of Sprinklr over the data.

    In the 11 April letter, the US company put the onus on the Kerala government to make the data available for providing Sprinklr’s services.

    As per the letter, Kerala would indemnify and treat Sprinklr, its staff, directors and affiliates harmless from anyone associated with the company’s access to as well as the use of customer data.

    These terms went missing in the 12 April letter of affirmation.

    The first letter also gave rights to the US firm royalty-free, non-exclusive, non-transferable, worldwide right and licence to copy, cache, store, reproduce, perform, display, use, distribute, transmit and generally make available the customer data in electronic form via the Internet, through wireless communications and social media.

    In the letter of 12 April, Sprinklr changed its stance and said the data at all times would remain the property of the citizen and would be removed on instruction (from the citizen).

    The company said it would not do anything with data beyond the limited rights granted to it by the citizen.

    In the 11 April letter, Sprinklr asked Kerala government to provide all data. But in the next day’s letter, the US company talked of personal data provided only pursuant to the citizen’s consent.

    Also in the letter of 12 April, Sprinklr would host the data within the geographical boundaries of the country.

    The release of the letters cut no ice with the opposition, particularly Chennithala. The senior Congress leader urged Vijayan to examine the deal and said documents released were only email exchanges.

    He argued that Sprinklr’s services were not free and the state government would have to pay post-coronavirus.

    One of the main allegations of Chennithala is that data of 8.7 million ration card holders had been handed over to the US firm.

    On Wednesday (15 April), addressing the media, Chennithal alleged a huge scam and argued that the letters of affirmation were not a legal agreement.

    He also questioned why senior bureaucrat and IT Department Secretary M Sivasankar featured in Sprinklr advertisement and wondered the reason for its removal from the company’s website.

    The opposition leader has threatened to get back to the media with more details.

    On the other hand, Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Mulapally Ramachandran has sought the views of the CPI-M politburo as it has always championed the cause of data privacy.

    M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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