Is data the new oil? If it is, then given the myriad mutations of data, is there any kind of data that is sacrosanct? If some data is indeed inviolable then does anyone, especially the state have the right to mine it, warehouse it and exercise proprietary control over it? These are some serious questions that need to be articulated given the fact that we are in a season of data leaks, peep and squeaks. Decriers of the data-oil equivalence paradigm underscore the fact that oil is limited hydrocarbon resource while data is a renewable being churned out in more than generous doses every day. There is but a finite amount of oil on Earth that can be extracted. The worth of oil comes from its scarceness and the difficulty of mining it from new and untapped locations. However, it is progressively becoming easier to churn out massive amounts of data. Designating data as the new oil serves to only delineate the study and analysis of a hitherto unexplored horizon as the brave new frontier of the technology universe. The insights that a deep dive into the undulating oceans of data can provide, in turn impels companies and even states to discern novel methods of monetising and weaponising it respectively.
Oil is a single-use commodity while data can be recycled and reprocessed for fresh purposes and discernments. Not too far in the past if anecdotal evidence available in the public space is any guide data generated from a clinical trial of a medication ordinarily used to treat coronary ailments was reused. It led to the innovation of a second use for the drug ostensibly for destroying a protein associated with nearly half of all cancers. In the next two years alone 40 zettabytes of data will be created — an amount so humungous that there are no utilitarian frames to exhibit its size and scope. A zettabyte (ZB) is a unit of digital information storage used to denote the size of data. It is equivalent to 1,024 exabytes or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes. If we were to accede to the logic that data is the new oil then a data refinery is but its logical extension. It would mean that new sources of crude data would have to be provisioned to enable this enterprise to generate revenue from this resource. Raw data from multiple sources would flow into this factory, including people contributed proprietary data, procured data, open source data and streaming data.
The enterprise would then crunch the data to create new intellectual properties through a combination of processes proprietary information, domain expertise, analytics, software and permutations of data sets. This freshly cultured data would then be stored in databases customised to the mode and gauge of the data just as oil derivatives such as gasoline, heating fuel and motor oil are stored in various cisterns. The refined data products would then be disseminated to consumers over the Internet as analytic acumen or used to foster new products. However, all this would have to be done within an ecosystem of legal, regulatory and contractual obligations that would have to concurrently evolve strictly circumscribing the usage of data all along the value chain from the raw feed to the finished product if data ownership issues have to be properly addressed. Herein lies the conundrum for there are some forms of data primarily human biometrics that should not but be squeezed, teased and creased out of human beings without informed consent.
That is primarily the entire problem with the Aadhaar programme. When it was launched there was hardly any worthwhile thought given to the doctrine of informed consent. People were offered a stark black and white utopia of an identity traded off against handing over to the state the most intimate of personal data. Millions of internal migrants and others were captivated by the power of the magic number that would unlock keys to the bugbear of their daily existence, the inability to access state and private services that are essential for a dignified if not empowered living like a ration card, bank account, voter identity card, Pan card and other such statutory and non-statutory essentials. Others signed up out of sheer ignorance. Nobody thought anything of parting with his or her personal details for the utopia of transiting from a nameless, faceless existence to the one with a demonstrable identity was both seductive and easy. In the process the government acquired proprietary control over personal, immutable and unalterable data of a billion-plus people precisely the kind of basic raw material required for a humungous data refinery.
To stifle any serious deliberation around the entire issue the NDA/BJP government rammed the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Bill, 2016 subterfuge as money bill through Parliament without a thorough consideration by a parliamentary standing committee whereby safeguards could have been suggested as to how all the data collected in the absence of a legal architecture should be treated. Moreover the government has shared that data with private players of all shades enabling them to stockpile their own data troves without letting the citizens have any inkling of it. The Aadhaar programme has changed the fundamental compact between the citizen and the state. Rather than the state organically flowing out of the collective free will of the sovereign, people have become but an object at the end of an extended leash in hands of an omnipotent state. It can be argued that people are also coerced into parting with their personal details when they obtain visas or arrive at foreign airports — the stripping before the white man analogy of a freshly minted Union minister. Even that is problematic and needs to be dealt with. However, first and foremost the time has come to take a fresh look at the entire Aadhaar programme if we the people are not to become new oil for the data refinery called the Government of India.