Supreme Court this week finished hearings on one of the most significant and emotive issues – privacy. It will pass it’s judgement in next few days which will determine whether the billion plus Indians have the right to privacy or not. It may say Yes or a No or something in between the two – setting limits and standards. The judgement in itself is a suspense but even if the court grants even a modicum of privacy right, the government will make it as difficult as possible to execute or implement it in the real spirit behind the law. The stakes are too big.
Privacy means many things and the intent of this article is not to go into it’s text book definition, it’s various interpretations (legally or otherwise) or even into the merits and demerits of privacy.
The intention is to look at why this is so important for everyone cutting across religious, caste, social, educational, political, ideological, economic lines.
Globally, privacy has gained attention largely due to the explosion in technology – particularly the advent of the internet. Technology has been around for decades now. It is difficult to even imagine how banks or railway ticketing worked prior to computerization. Few will recall the banking employees nationwide strikes to protest computerization when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced it. Of course, the strikes were due to fears of job losses (a fear that has come true but much later due to artificial intelligence, automation, robotics and outsourcing)
Nevertheless, all these years sundry government and non government organizations have been the custodians of our data – banks have all the financial data, credit rating agencies have them, the Ministry of External Affairs has your biometric data as well as your demographics when you apply for passport, voter ID and census have your demographics. All these and many others have this data. Nobody raised alarm bells then.
What changed the whole notion of privacy is that this data is being shared. And shared blatantly for a price. (I am restricting to data or information privacy)
The custodians of data mentioned earlier never really “monetized” their resources. This fancy management talk in plain English means “Sell the damn data to the highest bidder and make money.” Because quite often these new age companies have no other “resources” which can be sold. All they have is data – sourced legally or often illegally. These companies get fancy multi million dollar valuations although they do not have a single tangible asset. Mukesh Ambani was uncharacteristically honest when he repeated the now famous line “Data is the new oil”
As technology advanced, larger and larger networks got connected and “talk” with each other i.e. share data. The rapidly falling prices of connectivity as well as the rock bottom prices for server storage was complemented with exponential growth in processing speeds.
Data became a commodity. The value of data as a commodity means different things to different people and the same group of people can either use it or misuse it. Let’s understand how.
From a marketing or sales perspective, it becomes very easy to find out which socio economic class is using a product, the geographic location, the frequency of purchase, which products get purchased along with which others, brand affinity etc. All this is what can be termed as raw “meta data” i.e. a broad collection. But within this, it is possible to still down to an individual person. Thus it can be said with reasonable accuracy that a person A, having B credit card with a monthly card bill of X and flying 3 times a month is most likely to buy product Y. Thus, the cost of reaching out to Mr. A is negligible and he can be enticed easily. It works all the time. That’s how you get all those amazing offers online about that thing “just on my mind.” They haven’t read your mind. They’ve just mined your data.
From the corporate point of view transaction costs reduce, administrative costs, sales and marketing costs reduce drastically, targeted advertising brings instant sales, payments come in quickly, loan defaulters can be tracked and eliminated or excluded, background surveillance done on employees, prospects, rivals 24×7… The list is endless. All adding to the profits of companies. Financial services are most excited about Aadhaar. They are followed by the technology and mobile companies both of which benefit hugely from the hardware infrastructure and data boom. It is all about making money out of your private data.
The same set of demographic data with a grassroots NGO may allow it to better focus on the needy but in the hands of a greedy mining corporation may identify the most vulnerable section of society to pillage.
It did not take long for the whole world to realize that this is extremely dangerous. Criminals quickly realized that they need not enter physically secured sites or break vaults to commit theft when they could do it from the comfort of a coffee shop. Hackers have repeatedly broken through the most secure database servers with impunity holding companies, governments and individuals to ransom, blackmailing them with public disclosure of financial or intimate personal data. Hacking, identity theft have become common crimes as technology has progressed.
Data per se is not dangerous. It may be used or abused. But by itself, it has little value. It becomes dangerous when this raw unstructured data gets interconnected and linked elsewhere to provide meaningful, specific Information.
The negligible cost of storing this information safely (not necessarily securely) without it getting damaged means that every bit of your life is being stored somewhere where it will reside permanently – long after you have died.
Among data giants are the usual suspects like Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook etc. The unimaginable amount of private data just with Google is mind boggling. Eric Schmidt, ex CEO Google famously said “as much information added every two days now as we did from the dawn of man through 2003.” And that was in 2010 when the data explosion had just about begun!
When you consider the fact that mobile computing using apps for everything from shopping to paying bills, transferring money, booking tickets, watching movies, reading, sharing private and intimate details then you may realize why even Google does not know exactly how much data it has.
This data gets analyzed and user profile made instantly and a person gets identified, slotted into a particular category. He may get branded as a cheat because some database somewhere had reference to an alleged crime committed by someone with the same name or data might not have been updated even after his acquittal.
Mobile data can be a boon in tracking down a criminal but it can also be used to locate and silence political or business rivals. Everybody is on a digital leash.
Hence, it is best to let the informed user judge for himself/herself whether they want to share data and if yes the quantum they wish to share.
Corporations are monetarily rich but morally and ethically bankrupt.
They have a long history of selling and sharing private information for their own greed. Governments have been worse than companies and have used these databanks to target and eliminate certain classes of society. Nazi Germany did that with deadly accuracy prior to World War II and in India, minorities have been identified using names, religion, caste and address in voter lists etc for selective elimination in riots.
The Supreme Court of India heard the Right to Privacy case civil society has strong reservations about the Aadhaar program. Enough has been written about Aadhaar and how dangerous it is already. But when you see the whole government, the giant corporations in India and around the world drooling at the prospect of owning this dynamic data, you can be sure it cannot be too good for the common man. Nothing interests governments and corporates more than power and money.
Let us hope that the nine wise men will now pass an appropriate judgement which will defuse the Aadhaar bomb.
The author is a Mumbai based independent researcher. Email: