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08 Privacy

The proposed privacy laws are weak in intent, and will be non-existent in practice. The concept of privacy in India is still underdeveloped. There is virtual ignorance about the implications of technology and privacy. However, the flaws are deeper than just that, and is at the very conceptual and design levels itself. To make UIDAI revenue neutral, share cost or otherwise monetise the database it will have the PPP (public private partnership) model. This means the sale of data to third parties. So by design, the government is going to do the work of the private sector—just like it acquires the common lands of the poor for the rich industry, it is now going to do the same in the digital sphere for helping in marketing.

We are assured that the government will protect the privacy and ensure data security. Nilenkani himself says that ‘UID is a black database and no one can read from it… no other person can access data from it’—yet goes on to say that every kirana shop would become an ATM with this. When Blackberry’s and iPhones can be hacked in 10 minutes or less at the roadside, by illiterate teens Nilenkani’s innocence is touching. However, the track record of the government does not inspire confidence on two counts—they do not have the will nor the technical capability. Remember the ‘Do Not Call Registry’? Yet unwanted calls continue, and spam SMS proliferate. How will this be different? The government is technologically powerless to stop the small retail outfits that do the spamming. The investment for spamming is getting lower by the minute. So how can the government stop it?

The other is the question of intent. Does the government use the information that it does have for the benefit of the citizen? Sadly, that is not the case. It has consistently sided with corporate interest versus the tax paying citizen. The case of the mobile phone is illustrative. Every mobile phone has a unique IMEI Number. So theoretically, there can be no mobile thefts, since stolen mobile phones can be traced and recovered within minutes. The technology exists. It is the political will that does not. It is also a fact that the IMEI can be cloned at your friendly corner shop. When the government demonstrates its concern for the welfare of its citizens, then—and only then—does it become worthy of the citizens’ trust. Till date, we have not seen such evidence.

Security expert Bruce Schneier puts it this way: Crime fighting requires both resolve and resources, but it's done within the context of normal life. We willingly give our police extraordinary powers of investigation and arrest, but we temper these powers with a judicial system and legal protections for citizens. What we are doing now, to use another of his terms, is indulging in security ‘theatre’—a ‘show’ of nothing but smoke and mirrors with nothing concrete to address security concerns itself.