India will be the land of Big Data, will it also be the land of the Big Leak?

Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Image

NEW DELHI – India has no coltan or rare earths, little oil, and not enough water. What it does have is people – 1.3 billion and counting. That makes India potentially very rich in what has been called the ‘new oil’: data. But who will benefit from that wealth, and who might be put at risk?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi undoubtedly likes collecting data. Since becoming prime minister in 2014, he has led an enthusiastic campaign to expand digital governance. Biometric devices are now used to track the attendance of students and teachers in schools, and of government employees at work. Following his disastrous demonetization scheme in 2016, Modi has urged Indians to make digital, not cash, payments.

More ambitiously, Modi’s government has expanded the reach and scope of India’s scheme to issue to all residents a ‘unique identification number’, or Aadhaar, linked to their biometrics. The primary goal of the program was originally to manage government benefits and preventing the pilfering of state funds.

When the Aadhaar scheme was first introduced in 2009, Modi – then the chief minister of Gujarat – vociferously opposed it. As prime minister, however, he has ordered the identification numbers be linked to virtually everything. Bank accounts, school enrollment, mobile-phone contracts, travel records, hospital admissions, and even cremation certificates now all require an Aadhaar, despite Modi’s assurances to the Supreme Court that participation in the program would not become mandatory.

Modi’s objectives extend far beyond efficiency. Political hegemony is Modi’s goal. He has spent the last four years centralising and consolidating power, and his BJP has gained control of 22 of 29 states, complementing its lower-house majority.

But Modi’s vision of Big Government meeting Big Data has hit snags. Machines meant to authenticate Aadhaar holders have often failed, particularly in rural areas owing to a lack of Internet connectivity or electricity. This has prevented many poor people from claiming their ration supplies.

Making matters worse, the Aadhaar program leaks like a sieve. An investigative journalist at The Tribune newspaper was able to purchase five million ID numbers for a mere INR 500. On a government oil and gas company’s website, anyone with basic technical skills could uncover the names, bank details, and Aadhaar numbers of more than 500 million Indians.

Overall, the Aadhaar program leaves participants far more compromised than even, say, the 87 million Facebook users whose personal data were wrongly shared with the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica. In response, the Modi government has offered only denial, complacency, and concealment.

In 2015, he invited his supporters ‘to receive messages and emails directly from the prime minister’ by downloading and installing the Narendra Modi App on their phones. “No intermediaries, no media, no officials, no red tape,” he promised. The Android version of that app was downloaded more than five million times.

But there was a catch: the data to which Modi’s followers gave the app access – including their photographs, contact lists, and GPS data, as well as their microphones and cameras – were shared with a US firm. The app’s users did not know that this would happen, let alone consent to it. And while the app’s privacy policy has since been changed, that US firm retains the previously acquired data, which it could use for commercial purposes today and for who knows what else tomorrow.

The challenges associated with collecting and protecting data will only intensify in the years to come. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s data have been generated in the last two years alone. In India, that percentage may be even higher, as increasingly ubiquitous 4G services and increasingly cheap Internet-enabled smartphones have enabled millions to get online and offer up personal information.

India will be the land of Big Data. The question is whether it will also be the land of the Big Leak. So far, the country lacks strong data privacy and protection laws. To protect the people who are generating all of that data wealth Modi must follow through on his campaign promise to deliver ‘minimum government, maximum governance’.

Shashi Tharoor, a former Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress. He is the author of Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.