Aadhaar privacy row: Social trust can once again be created with Big Data

The more data a Google has, the better its services ... but if the consumer can ‘port’ her data, the market gets more competitive— we can also do this for our health records, etc

Though the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court (SC) will decide on whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, at the heart of this is the question is whether Aadhaar and the so-called ‘data’ that it collects is an invasion of that right to privacy. (IE)

Though the Constitution bench of the Supreme Court (SC) will decide on whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, at the heart of this is the question is whether Aadhaar and the so-called ‘data’ that it collects is an invasion of that right to privacy. So, assuming that the bench decides that the right to privacy is a fundamental one, it will then be called upon to decide on whether Aadhaar breaches that right—in which case, UIDAI will have to show the SC that it does not actually possess the ‘data’ that it is accused of collecting. That is, it will have to show SC that if your bank account is linked to Aadhaar and you are making transactions via BHIM, it is the bank that has the data, not UIDAI. If you authenticated your mutual fund transaction, or digitally signed a property deal using Aadhaar, it is the mutual fund or the property registry that has the details, not UIDAI. In the pre-Aadhaar days, people often gave details of their voter IDs or passports while making these transactions—if that didn’t mean the Election Commission had a financial profile of yours, why should it be assumed UIDAI has?

While that is something SC will decide, as Aadhaar-founder Nandan Nilekani pointed out (upgrad.com/talks/) in a recent talk, all the data India is generating—GST alone will provide one billion records each month on items being bought/sold—offers it the chance to do something truly revolutionary, something Aadhaar started and the India-Stack complemented (goo.gl/LuTvtg) by building upon it various apps that are completely open-source. And this will prevent data from being monopolised, or data colonisation, to use Nilekani’s phraseology.

Today, a Google or a Facebook collects all manner of information on a user’s preferences and uses that to provide better services—if I search for a TV and then move on to looking at the Financial Express website, after a while, ads for TVs will pop up on my screen, for instance; if I have shown an interest in Chinese food and a new restaurant comes up near my place, I may get an alert … that is, the more data a Google or a Facebook has on me, the more it can service my needs better; that, in turn, drives more advertisers towards it … in other words, it becomes a data monopoly. That, in a sense, was the genesis of the European Union’s fine on Google last month. But what if, Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolink argued in The New York Times, there was something that allowed an individual to take all her data—what they call a ‘social graph’—along with her? That is, all her browsing history, all her searches, the places she visited, the things she bought on various sites … if all of it could be given to her in a file that she could take to another version of Google or Facebook, the fear of data monopolies would disappear since ‘MyBook’ would know as much about her as Facebook.

It is precisely this putting of the individual at the centre of everything that Nilekani is suggesting, but it is not limited to Zingales ‘social graph’. To some extent, India has already created the basic infrastructure in the form of DigiLocker. It will take years to get it done, but theoretically, once all government departments have managed to digitise their archives, all data about an individual, from a birth certificate to a school-leaving one, a college degree, property certificates, investments, etc, can be digitally signed and sent directly into her DigiLocker. Now, do the same for all financial records—you can download a PDF of your bank records but, given how easy it is to manipulate PDFs, it would be better if your bank records could be transferred into your DigiLocker like the ‘social graph’—and since they would be digitally signed, there would be no fear of these being fake. And for those selling on Amazon, surely a transaction history is worth preserving given how it can enhance your credit profile? The GST data, similarly, will capture all manner of detail of a firm— it is not just valuable to taxmen, it has value for the firm itself.

You can keep adding to this. Medical records are an obvious example since these can be shown to doctors across the world and even insurance companies. At the UpGrad talk where Nilekani was talking about this to DJ Patil, former chief data scientist of the United States Office of Science and Technology Policy, someone in the audience asked how BigData and Aadhaar could be used to keep women secure. This is the kind of issue that will raise the hackles of any privacy activist, but one can imagine a situation where every cab driver asks people to rate him—his Aadhaar number will serve as a unique identifier. If this data is voluntarily shared by the cab driver, you don’t need an Uber to certify safety, but a person getting into a cab can check the antecedents of the driver beforehand. Ditto for any other transaction history.How much you want to share is up to you, but there is a lot of ‘data’ being generated at every point in your life. Instead of this being owned by data companies like Google or Facebook, if there was a law to ensure it stayed with you and you got to decide what do to with it, the possibilities are immense. The world may no longer be a village, but ‘social trust’ can once again be created with BigData and, if you want, be shared.