Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.(ANI)
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.(ANI)

Kerala High Court seeks explanation on data deal with US firm

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Kerala IT department had inked an agreement with a US firm to process huge volume of data collected by grassroots health workers of the state.
Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram | By HT Correspondent
UPDATED ON APR 22, 2020 12:52 PM IST

In a setback to the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government, the Kerala High Court on Tuesday sought an explanation from it over the data contract deal with the US firm Sprinklr and questioned the foreign jurisdiction norm in the agreement.

“We are proud that Kerala has done well in controlling Covid-19. But we also have concerns about date confidentiality. Is the government incapable of handling data of 2 lakh people?,” a bench comprising Justices Devan Ramachandran and TR Ravi asked while hearing a petition questioning the deal. The court directed the government to file a detailed reply by Wednesday.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the state IT department had inked an agreement with the US firm to process a huge volume of data collected by grassroots health workers of the state. Though no money was involved in the contract, the opposition had alleged that it was a breach of privacy and vital data. Later, it was found that the cabinet and law department were not consulted before signing the deal.

When the government responded that it had sought the help of the company for data analysing and vetting, the court asked if the government was incapable of handling the data of 2 lakh people. It also asked whether the government had an IT department.

“We do not want the Covid-19 pandemic to be substituted with data pandemic. Data confidentiality in the present world is most important,” the court observed. It also questioned the jurisdiction of the agreement in a court in New York.

The Sprinklr controversy came up two weeks back and the opposition, Congress-led United Democratic Front, had announced a series of agitation from next week seeking Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s resignation alleging it was a “sell out” and that many state-based IT and data companies were overlooked to gift the contract to the US firm.

But CM Vijayan brushed aside all the allegations saying the “opposition was jealous of the rising popularity of the government.”    

As the controversy flared up, state IT secretary M Shivasankar, also the CM’s private secretary, told the media on Saturday that he took the decision personally as the pandemic situation was getting out of control in the state. Later, he also appeared in a promotional video of the deal which was removed from Sprinklr’s website after the controversy cropped up.

“We direly needed an entry that could vet a considerable amount of health data to identify infection patterns to streamline the containment strategy. Spirnklr agreed to provide the service without charge. The arrangement did not warrant the prior vetting of the finance or legal departments. It was my decision at a desperate time,” he said justifying the deal. But the opposition said he owned up the guilt to save the chief minister.

“We don’t believe that without the CM’s consent such a deal will take place. Nearly 1.75 lakh people under observation had volunteered their personal information to field workers in good faith. But the government betrayed their faith and handed over valuable information to the US firm. It is strange the IT secretary did not know the value of this data,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala who was the first to raise the charge on April 10.

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