The first census of independent India — a 10-yearly survey — was conducted in 1951 to gather statistics on population distribution, gauge the status of housing, household income, education, etc. The idea was that it would help evaluate government programs, planning and policy decisions, and even aid business houses with information for marketing products. Surveyors appeared patiently at your doorstep and diligently recorded everything by hand.Data collection was meant to improve lives not invade them.
Illustration credit: Uday Deb
Seventy years later, what began as a method of using information to enhance daily life is now a great sweeping tide of mass technological surveillance. This new form of public scrutiny has nothing of the slow meticulous scribbling into a sweaty ledger, but is instead like a lethal gas making its way into a crowded unsuspecting settlement. The recent Pegasus spyware case where governments allegedly spied on several activists, journalists and opposition leaders, among other private citizens, only demonstrates a deeply insidious and sinister intent. Without requiring permission, the lives of several private individuals are now on record somewhere in cyberspace, in a cloud or in an underground data facility.
A Delhi-based journalist was once asked in a local survey which morning newspaper he preferred. Incensed at the potential breach of privacy, he refused to divulge his preference, and instead reported the offending inquiry to the Press Council. This was in the 60s, and the journalist was my father. Today the big three: government, private corporations and social media are in the privileged position to mould opinion, even decide the direction our lives should take. Who you are, what you read, how you vote, where you work, who your friends are, what you earn, is all easily gleaned from various sources — tax forms, Aadhaar cards, bank and credit statements, and a host of government transactions that track your income and expenditure. Private idiosyncrasies and intentions come through commercial means; your personal choices, the books you read, the films you watch, where you travel and eat, are all coded and categorised to reveal algorithmic patterns.
Tech companies use this data from your choices as useful raw material for future profit.
Data is of course a boon and a bane. Boon, when the government is made aware of high female foeticide rates in Rajasthan, and low primary school education rates in Bihar, and it acts in a targeted way. Bane, because it also points to precise numbers and details of those who appear in a political rally in Srinagar, or the number of unemployed in suburban Mumbai who may be potential terrorists. Algorithmic profiling in India and elsewhere is being used to collect data on minority populations, as much to single them out, as to deny them access to public services, housing, health, education, even jobs. The automated listing is as helpful as its simplistic coding is harmful.
Moreover, the government’s discretionary powers allow it to use any data that appears to fall in the public interest under the guise of cabinet approved ‘lawful interception and monitoring’ under Section 69 of the IT Act. For instance, during the start of the pandemic, the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation even made public names and addresses of some Covid patients (though personal data retained during a medical crisis is meant to be deleted eventually). States like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat continue to monitor large population groups through new remote sensing technologies, geo fencing and drone cameras. The extent of their surveillance remains secret and unknown. Unfortunately, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 which could protect private information from reaching public sites, still awaits parliamentary clearance.
Ultimately the failure of big data to perform for the public good says a great deal about mismanagement and misdirected purpose. Its only parallel is atomic power, whose original intention was to provide clean energy, not dirty bombs. Data surveillance — as indeed the Census Bureau — similarly began with the sole purpose of improving lives. But somewhere along the line, the political-military establishment got other ideas .The easy availability of statistics was meant for better hospitals, schools and education, more accurate weather predictions, enhanced food outputs, and more livable cities. Not for spying on individuals, misuse in elections, or enlarging business profits.
Of those phones around the world that could have been infected with Pegasus, other than Mexico, the largest number are Indians. Is the Indian government one of those vetted governments that bought Pegasus from the Israeli surveillance company NSO? We will probably never know. We are still a long way from being able to download IndiaSpy, the future app that will allow Indian citizens to snoop on their own entirely opaque government.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.