The Big Data Connundrum of a Digital India

Data is the gold of post modern world hitherto making internet the goldmine. 15.1 percent of the population is already on the internet with 50 crore more users set to join them in the next 5-8 months, according to the telecom minister. The union budget 2016 comprised of technological initiatives aimed at empowering governance practices like including the practice of data analytics to nab tax evaders,creating digital depository for school leaving certificates among other initiatives. This government understands the next iteration of progression involves metamorphosis of the fundamental framework of society from analog-digital to completely digital. To fit government schemes in the scope of internet, digital india is a befitting response. With services like digital locker, e sign framework included in the package, availing government services will definately become easier. But what complicates this situation is that while we are genereating such high volume of data- most of which is of the “identifier” type that is used to identify a person , a thing or an entity in the ecosystem- we do not have in place measures that safeguard the privacy of this data nor regulate data retention by platforms collecting it. This enormous amount of unregulated big data can be used as a fitting collaborator for monitoring and pre-emptively controlling sections of the populations that in circumstances of prolonged deprivation or injustice can be prone to unseemly eruptions against those who control the levers of power.

If digital information on consumers is the new coveted treasure then can we put confidence in our government as the ultimate custodian of definitive information on citizens to overlook the global big data rush and not process the data it has for optimal value extraction? The government’s anxiousness to make the ownership of an aadhar card which is theoretically voluntary and practically mandatory is structured on the same postulate whose comprehension led Myntra to go app-only, Facebook to develop solar powered drones to beam internet from the sky and other tech companies to want your mobile number. The postulate being that consumer data is most valuable when tied to specific individuals as it enables closer tracking of user behaviour. That is why people are apprehensive to purchase space on google and/or icloud as they could not be sure whether the privacy of their data would be maintained. It would have been preferential to use an Indian government service as the government could be held accountable but not google which may or may not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts. But the lack of any data protection law in india or any law relating to privacy leaves the Indian netizens in a state of connundrum over their data.The Ministry of Communication and Information technology, when probed about the need for a government recognised privacy legislation in India said that the licensing conditions of Telecom service providers and certain sections of the IT act already ‘adequately provide for the necessary safeguards to privacy.’

Privacy is a multi variant paradigm. It constitues discrenibly sensitive personal information, some identified under rule 3 privacy rules of the IT Act like paswords, financial information, sexual orientation etc. Then there is another variant of data which may not say something individually but in combination can help narrate stories of daily lives. Mobile big data, M2M data,user behaviour etc fall outside the ambit of ‘sensitive personal data’ according to the IT act thus leaving email , chat logs, records of internet activity including online search histories vulnerable to abuse and misuse. The smart cities which is also a scheme under the digital India campaign ensures each citizen secreates a continuous data trail containing the said information and more from birth to death. For a government which does not have in place a regulating privacy legislation and does not even see the need for it, evident not only from the Ministry of communication and information comment but also because the government is fighting a case through the Attoney General, claiming that there was no fundamental right to privacy, it is very easy to use the data depository of citizens it has in possession to chill the exercise of civil libertIes. The threat of trampling of intelectual freedom is manifolds as the section 43 of the Informatin Technology act which is concerned with penalty and compensation for damage to computer, computer system etc defines ‘body corporation’ engaged in ‘commercial or professional activities’ under its scope. The government agencies and non-profit organizations are entirely excluded from the ambit of this section. And this is still not where the hole stops getting even bigger as even if an entity is caught in some act of indiscreprecy with the citizen data, under section 72A of the IT Act they can only be held liable if it is proven that they have made a violation with the intent to cause or knowing that it is likely to cause wrongful loss or wrongful gain discloses, without the consent of the person concerned or in breach of a lawful contract. Here, this school of thought’s initial question could be rephrased as “Can we put confidence on the government as ultimate custodian of citizen data when there is no legislation requiring it to let data retain its integrity by not processing it and no law to hold it accountable if done so?”

Digital India may be the defining deal of this decade but without a robust privacy legislation it might as well be the first step towards an Orwellian dystopia. Our law makers notoriously function through leaks and so do law agencies. Some will say it is necessary to balance privacy against security, and that its important to find the right compromise between the two. Not many people in the privacy community maybe willing to make in public but yes people will use privacy rights to hide illegal activities. And that may just be the whole point. We desire only based on what we know. Our present experience of self and constraints determines our sense for what is possible.That is why same sex relationships in violation of Sodomy law were a necessary precondition for the legislation of same sex marriage. That is exactly why those maintaining positions of power will always encourage the freedom to talk about ideas, but never to act.


Aayush is a freelance writer currently working on a wiki based project to provide crowd sourced investigation focused on research and analysis of storage, processing and acclimatisation of citizen data by private and public entities alike. To talk, educate ,inform ,collabotrate or critic mail –

One Comment

Leave a Reply