On June 23, 2017, the second edition of Delhi Tech Talks – a collaborative series of quarterly discussions on the state of tech policy in India – was organized by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi (CCG), Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), HasGeek, Internet Democracy Project (IDP), and SFLC​.in at the India International Centre, New Delhi. The overarching theme for this event was data protection, privacy and citizenship, in the context of Aadhaar.

Session 1: Aadhaar, Data Privacy, and What it Means to be a Citizen

The discussion comprised two panels, the first of which was titled Aadhaar, Data Privacy and What it Means to be a Citizen”. This panel was moderated by Ms. Shuchita Thapar (Project Manager, CCG), and featured the following speakers: Ms. Anja Kovacs (Founder-Director, IDP), Mr. Pranesh Prakash (Policy Director, CIS), Ms. Zainab Bawa (Founder & CEO, HasGeek), Mr. Osama Manzar (Founder, DEF), and Ms. Chinmayi Arun (Executive Director, CCG).

Ms. Anja Kovacs began by highlighting the negatives of surveillance. She said that surveillance is not just a matter of privacy but also social justice, and explained the same from a feminist perspective. In light of the recent comments made by the Attorney General that Indians do not have an absolute right over their bodies, she explained the shifting perspective on the definition of body”. Ms. Kovacs said that in the age of digital technology, the body is not just limited to the physical self but extends to multiple data doubles in the virtual world. With respect to Aadhaar and the collection of biometrics, she said that if the data reflection of our body does not work, we might be denied basic services by the State and this will influence the relationship between citizen and State.

Mr. Pranesh Prakash was of the view that moving towards digitalization is not necessarily awful. It is a consequence of urbanization and helps in the larger project of nation state building. He emphasized that the problem lies with the implementation of the Aadhaar scheme and not so much with the law. He maintained that he is not against the idea of a foundational identification system upon which other identification mechanisms are based. Mr. Prakash clarified that the issue with Aadhaar is not identification, but unchecked surveillance, though he also added that just because a technology can be used for surveillance does not make it bad per se. Instead, there should be discussions around privacy and accountability with respect to Aadhaar.

Ms. Zainab Bawa said that Aadhaar is like a looming ghost – on one hand there is a growing belief that it is extremely important for one to have an Aadhaar card and on the other hand there is a lot of mystery surrounding its nature. She talked about the politicization of the issue of Aaddhar and how a binary is being promoted by the Government through Aadhaar and demonetisation. The Government is propagating the idea that anything thats analogue is backward. She also pointed out the problem of authentication failure and the confusion among citizens with respect to grievance redressal. Lastly, Ms. Bawa raised the following questions: What are the spheres of relationships where regulations are required to protect privacy? In the absence of law, can mathematics sometimes provide a more elegant solution for privacy?”

Mr. Osama Manzar started with his views on what it is like to be a citizen in times of technology. According to Mr. Manzar, being a citizen in India is a luxury, considering the number of people who are denied benefits for the lack of Aadhaar. He cited the example of four hundred women sitting in front of a computer for three days to access a printout that was supposed to show that they were paid their MNREGA wages. Mr. Manzar mentioned that Aadhaar is digital exclusion in the name of inclusion.

Ms. Chinmayi Arun spoke about the ideals of a democratic state and how Aadhaar is contrary to it. In the context of Aadhaar, she expressed her skepticism with respect to a project where the Government identifies a problem and then finds a solution that does not necessarily have anything to do with the problem. She said that democracy is based upon a delicate balance between the citizens and the State. Ms. Arun also mentioned the importance decentralization of power in a democratic State. She said that Aadhaar concentrates power and information in the Centre, and that this is incompatible with democracy. Further, Ms. Arun stated that democracy is about not trusting your Government, adding that this is not because the Government has harmful intentions but to maintain that delicate balance between the citizen and the State. It was also remarked by her that the previous draft of the Aadhaar Act had the provision of ombudsman”, who could pull the plug on the entire system of Aadhaar. It has been removed from the new Act. Ms. Arun also gave the example of Germany, where a subject who is being surveilled is always informed of the same after the surveillance is complete. The subject can approach the court if he/​she thinks that he/​she has been illegally targeted by the State. This is contrary to what is followed in India, where there is no state accountability mechanism. Most of the safeguards that are considered fundamental in other countries is not implemented in India, said Ms. Arun.

Session 2: When Big Data Becomes Toxic

The second panel of the evening, titled When Big Data Becomes Toxic” was moderated by Ms. Smitha Krishna Prasad (Project Manager, CCG), and had the following speakers: Mr. Anupam Saraph (Future Designer), Mr. Manish (Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research), Ms. Smriti Parsheera (Research Associate, National Institute for Public Finance and Policy), and Mr. Sukarn Singh Maini (Counsel, SFLC​.in).

Mr. Anupam Saraph explained how Aadhaar is being used to facilitate benami transactions. He pointed out that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had initially refused to link Aadhaar with bank accounts, but information received through RTI revealed that they were compelled by the Ministry of Finance to allow the linking. He said that Aadhaar can be used to create multiple fake identities, hence enabling the creation of multiple fake bank accounts. Mr. Saraph highlighted that UIDAI signed an MoU with a non governmental agency called National Payments Corporation of India to create Aadhaar Enabled Payment System, which will enable transfer of funds from person to person instead of account to account.

Mr. Manish started by quoting an anecdote about his experience at a seminar on bonded labour. Representatives of the Government attending the seminar were asked to propose solutions to tackle the evil. Most of the labour secretaries from various states of India were of the view that the solution to tracing bonded labourers was to create a centralised database of such labourers with their Aadhaar details. Mr. Manish also explained how India has become a reluctant welfare state and that there is a push towards digitalization, especially with regard to financial services, post demonetisation.

Ms. Smriti Parsheera talked about big data and databases, and said that big data analysis can be utilized for a lot of good if done in the right way, though she also acknowledged the privacy and data protection challenges with big data. She touched upon the concern of bias with respect to big data analysis, citing the example of biases that creep into the criminal justice system. Lastly, she explained the link between big data and Aadhaar and how unidentifiable Aadhaar data analysis can be used for the benefit of research and analysis that can serve public good.

Lastly, Mr. Sukarn Singh Maini spoke about digital payments such as Unified Payments Interface and e‑wallets, and privacy concerns attached to it. He also explained how big data analysis can be used for behavioural advertising. He spoke about Ministry of Electronics Information and Technology’s draft rules on e‑wallets, the lack of a privacy and data protection legislation in India and the need for the same, and the need for the Supreme Court to form a bench to decide the pending issue of privacy.

Originally published in Legally India.