Some kind of database for all our citizens, and their performance data, will create information about all citizens, who can even become competing entities to demand better services from governments and service providers.
Data privacy has become a popular subject before the Supreme Court, the government, Parliament and the media. There was a Time magazine report of October 23, 2017, by Joseph Hincks, stating that China is creating a database of citizens’ voices to add to its surveillance capacity. The Chinese government has collected tens of thousands of “voice pattern” samples from targeted citizens and is inputting them into a national voice biometric database, according to a Human Rights Watch report published on Monday. I do not know the purpose for which the data is being collected—for dealing with terrorism or for collecting information for preparing better growth schemes. I am only aware that whatever China has done in the past few years, it has scored over us, leading to five times higher growth in the last three decades, and far more efficient intelligence and antiterrorism machinery. We have often wasted our time in unnecessary debates. This report will inevitably create more controversies on the subject of privacy of information from the government and from companies. The debate, at times, suggests that privacy having been guaranteed by the Constitution, such information should not be collected by anyone.
We need to deal with the question rationally. No government of any form—capitalistic, communist, centric, welfare—can survive without collecting information of its subjects. If it does not, it loses the rationale of its existence. Such information is periodically collected everywhere in one form or another by different agencies for purposes of elections, census, identification, access to government schemes, subsidy entitlements, opening of bank accounts, passports, Jan-Dhan, income and other tax purposes, ration card and PDS, subsidy entitlements, caste, OBC/sub-OBC numbers etc. This leads to multiple exercises by different agencies causing huge taxpayers’ totally avoidable expenditure. A lot of this information is collected at the instance of citizens for determining various entitlements for subgroups.
When the Aadhaar was initiated, it was naturally expected that this would lead to consolidated collection of information in a digital framework, and its use by different government departments and even authorised private individuals converting India into an efficient multicultural, multi-group, ethnically-diverse society/democracy. The privacy debate seems to be killing this opportunity of streamlining data collection and its use. It is also killing the opportunity created by many visionaries in the government and society, who have collected and collated such information in the digital framework—and India is far ahead of many countries. In the words of Raoul Pal, the famous investor, “India is now the most attractive major investment opportunity in the world.
It’s all about something called Aadhaar and a breathtakingly ambitious plan with flawless execution. What just blows my mind is how few people have even noticed it. To be honest, writing the article last month was the first time I learned about any of the developments. I think this is the biggest emerging market macro story in the world.” It can be a major investment location only if simple issues do not land up in endless debates or in courts. The former Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chairman, Nandan Nilekani, said that Aadhaar helped in saving $9 billion, during a recent talk at the World Bank event on Digital Economy for Development. It is a short-term monetary benefit. The long-term benefit of Aadhaar will be much more than what we can imagine now. India should export the Aadhaar-based identity concept to its neighbouring countries.
Data and information is not only collected by government agencies, it is also collected by private banks, financial companies, retail and wholesale chains. They use this information for determining consumer trends/information to refine their manufacturing/distribution chains, which ultimately bring more efficiency. If this information gives some natural or unnatural advantage to someone, the issue can be examined in competition fora. But that this information should not be collected is an irrational argument, particularly when the information can be collected easily and cheaply on digital networks. But who should have access to, or who should use this information? It naturally follows that one who collects it should use it unless this is a security issue, which can be separately examined.
Some kind of database for all our citizens, and their performance data, to my mind, will only create information about all citizens, who can even become competing entities to demand better services from governments and service providers. I do recall the moment our mobile consumers became a huge number, they starting demanding better and cheaper services from service providers, and they got these services because service providers could easily design services—they knowing the classification of these consumers in terms of their requirements. If any data is considered rationally secret, the government can issue regulations to protect. But transparent data collection and its use by service providers can only improve services.
Pradip Baijal is a Former chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai)