The bitter-sweet of data privacy

The bitter-sweet of data privacy

Thursday March 29, 2018,

8 min Read

Suddenly everyone seems to have realised that when a service that you can’t almost live without is provided for free, then you are the product!

Image : Aditya Ranade

When man domesticated the horse, life changed all of a sudden. Long distance travel became easy and productivity in agriculture took a leap. It also allowed criminals to commit crimes and get away faster. It changed the way wars were fought. The story is the same when the automobile was invented. It wasn’t different when man invented the radio or learned how to split the atom.

At each of these junctures, there were intense debates on whether these inventions changed life for the better or for the worse. In the early stages, there was a clamour to do away with them. In each of these cases, wisdom prevailed in the end and societies decided not to throw the baby away with the bathwater. The inexorable march of technology continued!

You can see similar noise today when it comes to new technologies or new ways of doing business. Taxi aggregators were banned as recently as in 2014. In less than four years this sounds so distant and absurd.

Now let’s fast forward to the debate around data privacy:

We’ll take the debate around Aadhaar and the debate around Facebook/Google separately.

First Aadhaar:

Aadhaar solves two long-standing problems that have crippled the nation, namely:

  1. Massive leakage of benefits:

Leakages occur when the subsidy does not reach the recipient due to corruption and pilferage. When well-off families, who are not the intended recipients of these benefits, received these benefits through falsification of data and documents the intended outcomes of the programme were compromised. For example, traditionally, the bottom 50 percent of India’s households consumed only 25 percent of subsidised LPG. This meant that the subsidy on LPG was being cornered by the relatively well-off sections. Therefore, the government was really trying to fill a leaking bucket!

Similarly, more than 40 percent of the subsidised kerosene meant for the public distribution system was being diverted to adulterate automotive fuels. Creating a differential pricing for the underprivileged was creating havoc and ample room for pilferage. The government’s Direct Benefits Transfer (DBT) plan, which simply involved transferring the subsidy amount directly to the beneficiaries’ bank accounts, began addressing this problem. The poor are now using the money transferred to their accounts to buy LPG/kerosene and other commodities at market prices. The strategy of doing away with subsidies and transferring subsidy to deserving beneficiaries is allowing competitive markets to function for the commodities in question, besides avoiding leakage of subsidy to the non-deserving. Leakages have come down significantly. Mint had reported in May 2017 that over 23 million fake ration cards had been scrapped, potentially saving the government Rs14,000 crore in food subsidy every year. Another Mint report in August said that three states had discovered that about 2,72,000 fake students were availing the mid-day meal (MDM) scheme. These fake names have since been taken off. Similarly, there were millions of fake bank accounts that had been opened with falsified documents, and many individuals were not even aware that accounts had been opened in their names by unscrupulous individuals. Verification of all accounts by Aadhaar is cleaning up the mess. The case of MGNREGA wages is an example where DBT effectively addressed the twin issues of leakage as well as "mis-targeting" simultaneously. It was a well-known fact that across the country, MGNREGA wages – at the time paid in cash – were being misappropriated by middlemen on a very large scale.

After the government initiated the DBT scheme in MGNREGA, a very large number of these middlemen were eliminated. The savings that have accrued from plugging these leakages are now available for welfare measures without the need to further pinch the taxpayer.

  1. A parallel economy that rivalled and emasculated the mainstream economy.

The battle against the parallel economy was an unequal one in the past. Aadhaar has equipped the government with the right weaponry to kill the parallel economy. After identifying a huge number of fake PAN cards, the government deactivated more than a million PAN cards by the middle of 2017. The government also detected fake PAN cards, which were allotted to non-existing individuals or to people who had submitted falsified information about themselves. With the linking of financial transactions and assets to Aadhaar, the battle against the parallel economy is truly on. There may be some friction on the ground when it comes to making these linkages, but these problems are being addressed. Deeply entrenched vested interests are now using all kinds of surrogate concerns that sound lofty, like privacy and security.

From time to time, the scare of security breaches in the Aadhaar database has been making headlines. RS Sharma, Chairman - TRAI, demolishes the scaremongering by clarifying that in the seven years of Aadhaar, not a single biometric data, repeat not a single biometric data, has leaked. The anti-Aadhaar lobby has been misusing public ignorance on what constitutes a breach to spread fake news and limit the use of Aadhaar.

Sharma pulls no punches when he says that as long as Aadhaar was used by the poor for getting their entitlements, it was deemed alright. Now that it is being used by the government to check tax evasion and benami properties, it has begun to hurt some people who are using every means at their disposal to block it and limit its use. Sharma is confident that Aadhaar is here to stay, and explains that like an evolving organism it continues to make improvements by adding new features and security layers.

While there are genuine concerns about privacy, the answer is to strengthen the security rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Now to FB/Google/Amazon, et al - owned data

In the early years of outsourcing, there were a couple of cases where call centre agents in India working at a contact centre of an outsourced service provider to a large MNC accessed credit card data of customers to pilfer money from their accounts. There was a huge outcry especially in the US about the ability of Indian service providers to assure data security. The outcry finally died down because a) the cost of in-sourcing services back to the US was a hugely expensive proposition, b) even that would not guarantee data security and c) Indian service providers quickly scrambled to put together processes that addressed the issue.

The response to a solution or a technology that creates huge benefit with a five percent chance of misuse or fraud is to address and minimise the probability of the five percent misuse happening rather than doing away with the technology or business model altogether – especially if the 5 percent chance of misuse is in the realms of possibility rather than having actually occurred.

The outcry around FB data leakage has multiple dimensions. The outcry has been amplified because the data was used to influence the US elections. Influencing elections is nothing new. There were routine accusations in the past that the US and CIA tried influencing elections (and other events) in several countries. Similarly, the erstwhile USSR made contributions to specific individuals and parties that they thought would be able to best protect their interests in the US. The traditional print media too had its favourite party.

Some TV channels are owned by individuals who have strong party affiliations that the common man did not even know about. Hence she was being subjected to views that she thought were neutral but were actually biased. Every innovation in technology has amplified the ability to influence opinions by increasing the reach. Social media has enlarged the reach.

Social media’s huge reach has helped address several problems. Dictatorial governments were overthrown, lost children found, communities were mobilised to fight for social causes and many other things. While discussing the possible damage that SM can create let us not forget the positives it has delivered for society.

A lot of the data that companies like Google have about individuals is largely used to target ads and this service would not have been free if targeted advertising wasn’t possible because of access to data.

Does that mean data privacy concerns are totally misplaced?

Not at all! These concerns can best be addressed if both sides to the debate are open to views and the governments of the day stop responding in a knee jerk manner to appease angry mobs. Angry mobs are usually swayed by a few opinion makers who take extreme positions.

As long as the regulation is introduced with an intention to address the 5 percent misuse and not lose sight of the 95 percent cases where there are huge benefits, it is fine. If they take a blunt approach of heavy regulation that kills the core then we will all be wondering why we fed these imaginary fears.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim any expertise on this topic. Therefore, some of the statements and views may not pass the test of rigour. This does not deter me from sharing a layman’s perspective. I believe that laymen should not shy away from sharing their views based on their experience for fear that they may not be able to substantiate some of these views with indisputable data. If they shy away from doing this, the value of what they see from their vantage point would be lost.


(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)