A privacy panic flared in India after police pulled payment data from Razorpay

Prasanto K. Roy, a New Delhi-based public policy consultant, is concerned. In 2017, he began sending regular donations to the Indian fact-checking organization Alt News to support its work in the fight against misinformation online. But on July 5, a non-profit organization he said that the Indian payment portal Razorpay, which it used to receive donations, had shared its donors’ details with the New Delhi police following the arrest of Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair last month.

Roy is now reluctant to use Razorpay, saying he is concerned about tech companies handing over data – including his – to police without consent. “When a payment gateway provides donor databases to a police request that is excessive, that information can be misused by the police or others who may have access to it,” he said. “India doesn’t even have privacy laws yet.”

The full extent of the data Razorpay shared with police remains unclear, but Alt News he said that the data it collects from donors includes phone numbers, email addresses and tax identification numbers. The police officer said Hindustan Times that the police collect data from banks to cross-check with Alt News data.

The probe appears to be part of an ongoing investigation into whether Alt News received donations from outside India, after police alleged the organization’s parent received funds from several other countries, including Pakistan and Syria. Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, was arrested on June 27 for a 2018 tweet that allegedly hurt religious sentiments, but is also being investigated for other charges, including receiving foreign funds under India’s Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which restricts foreign donations to non-profit organizations.

While the arrest has prompted many Indians to fear that police are cracking down on internet freedom, it has also highlighted the limited legal protections for privacy in the world’s largest democracy, which lacks a comprehensive data protection law. The stakes are getting higher as more people in India use the Internet for entertainment, communication and commerce. The country’s digital payments market — already at $3 trillion — is expected to jump to $10 trillion by 2026, according to the Boston Consulting Group.

Razorpay faced social media backlash and threats a boycott for sharing donor information without notifying Alt News first. “Many donors and fundraisers have said they will no longer use Razorpay, and that was my first reaction,” Roy said, adding that perhaps other companies would buckle under the same pressure from the police.

In a press statement on Twitter, Razorpay did not mention Alt News and said the data shared was “limited to what was within the scope of the investigation.” Razorpay CEO Harshil Mathur tweeted that police were trying to “determine whether there were foreign donations or not” and claimed that tax IDs and addresses of donors were not being shared. Razorpay did not respond to a request for comment; Alt News co-founder Pratik Sinha declined to comment.

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