The Indian government’s plan to develop a national registry of sexual offenders is raising a slew of concerns, from data breaches to violations of privacy protections, including for individuals who were never convicted of a sexual offense.
The proposed national database – the government issued a call for bids in May – will store the name, photo, fingerprints, and personal details of all arrested, charged, and convicted of sexual offenses, including children. The information on convicted offenders will be public while law enforcement agencies will have access to the rest. It will categorize the individuals as “low,” “moderate,” or “high risk.”
Whether a person gets added to the sex registry can depend on laws that are archaic and open to misuse to arbitrarily classify suspects.
Those deemed “low danger” and “not likely to engage in criminal sexual conduct” will include everyone arrested, charged, and convicted of “Technical Rape,” a term often used by law enforcement to describe consensual sexual activity involving a girl under 18 years old. This means a boy who has consensual sex could be recorded in the database if someone, including the parents of the girl, filed criminal charges. This tier would also include section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes adult consensual same-sex relations, whose constitutionality is currently before the Supreme Court.
The record on those deemed “a moderate danger” would include those arrested, charged, or convicted under sections 67 and 67A of the Information Technology Act, which criminalize the publication and distribution of obscene and sexually explicit material, vague legal provisions that are repeatedly misused by police.
If the rape or sexual assault victim is under 12 years of age, an arrested, charged, or convicted offender will be categorized as “serious danger” likely to continue to “engage in criminal sexual conduct.”
A data breach or even rumors of possible inclusion in the registry is especially dangerous at a time when vigilante violence is on the rise. At least 24 people have been killed across India over rumors of kidnapping children in the past six months, while several have been attacked for inter-religious or inter-caste consensual relationships. This has been a problem elsewhere: in the United States there have been several instances of vigilante violence, including killings, of sex offenders listed in public registries, and in the UK in 2001 when a newspaper published details of convicted sexual offenders.
There is no silver bullet that can fix the complex problem of sexual violence in India. But the government should focus on supporting sexual violence survivors to ensure they can report crimes and receive justice without being stigmatized and threatened, and ensuring a system that provides them protection, legal aid, and adequate medical care. A poorly designed registry with inadequate safeguards will do little to advance change.