Guarding Privacy in a Digital Era: India’s Evolving Data Landscape

internet surveillance

While driving on Nagpur’s roads, I was in the driving seat of my car, engrossed in my thoughts, delving into the latest advancements in machine learning techniques—a subject which often is disliked in a common circle. I was on the roads from my office to my residence when I abruptly had to decelerate my car as I spotted a traffic police officer in front signaling to halt. As he approached, I pulled down my side window, and he requested to see my license. He then tapped on a handheld device, evidently inputting information from the license.  When I inquired about the reason for our detainment, the officer, adopting a scornful tone in Marathi, explained, “Your car moved while the yellow light was still illuminated, and the green light had not yet appeared. The CCTV camera at this traffic signal captured this.” I maintained a polite demeanor, opting not to engage in an argument with the traffic police officer. My thoughts then went in a different direction.

Data on your fingertip 

The officer proceeded to stand in front of the car, using his device to photograph the car’s license plate. He subsequently stepped aside and signaled for us to proceed, allowing us to continue our journey to my residence.

The following morning, I received an SMS from the RTO, informing me that, as the registered owner of the car, I had incurred a fine of Rs 500 for a violation at the traffic light. It was then that I realized something significant: My car’s license plate was linked to my mobile number and Aadhar Card, which, in turn, was connected to my PAN Card and so on.

Numbers rushed through my thoughts: Nagpur boasts a decent number of surveillance cameras per square mile, meticulously observing all of us. The top cities in India include Mumbai ranking as the 18th highest globally, while New Delhi surpasses with 1,900 cameras—the world’s highest count—surpassing even major cities like London, New York, Beijing, and Shanghai. Typically, as a tech enthusiast, I’d feel content reading such statistics. They signify India’s technological progress. Yet, in light of the traffic police incident, I found myself contemplating: Is this data collection beneficial, or could it potentially be misused by authorities?

The Data Protection Debate 

Much of India’s fervor for ‘data protection’ is driven by an intriguing alliance: Nasscom (the IT services trade association), the Internet and Mobile Association of India (now representing Google, Microsoft, and other foreign Big Tech entities), and even notable Indian pharmaceutical companies. Additionally, social activists like the ‘Internet Freedom Foundation’ and online media firms are passionately debating the risks associated with any form of data protection legislation.

Our confusion partly stems from our traditional concept of ‘privacy’ as citizens. Historically, privacy meant that strangers wouldn’t peer into our homes or intrude upon our ‘private life’. It involved refraining from prying into someone’s income, caste, or health matters. In response to nosy inquiries, we’d typically assert: ‘It’s none of your business!’ This generally quelled curiosity.

The world of computers, data, and the Internet functioned for years without much scrutiny of potential negative applications of user data, until the ‘Cambridge Analytica Scandal’ emerged in 2018. This scandal revealed that the British firm had exploited its Facebook app to gather profiles of 87 million users, subsequently aiding Donald J. Trump’s 2016 election campaign.

Similar concerns came to light in 2013 when Edward Snowden exposed US intelligence agencies’ use of personal data for citizen surveillance. Further alarm was triggered when European authorities fined Google $50 million and Amazon $800 million for misusing private data.

Yet, throughout history, beneficial innovations have emerged at the expense of ‘privacy’. An interesting example is the introduction of postcards by postal companies in the 19th century, which initially provoked negative reactions due to fears of privacy breaches. Over time, the affordability and speed of postcard delivery made them immensely popular.

The Final Thoughts 

These events have reshaped our understanding of ‘personal data’ and ‘privacy’, prompting governments worldwide to enact data protection laws. In doing so, governments find themselves assuming a dual role: mediating between businesses and citizens regarding personal data usage and competing as sole entities, employing their citizens’ data for national defense and strategic purposes. In our pursuit of becoming a premier democracy and economic leader, the Data Protection Board outlined in the recently passed Digital Personal Data Protection Act holds immense significance. It’s imperative to engage our most astute and profound-thinking tech experts in this endeavor.

 Mohd. Ziyaullah Khan is based in Nagpur and works with a leading digital marketing company in the city as the Content Head. He is also an activist and social entrepreneur and loves to experiment with special and exclusive programs among young people under the banner – Young Transformers.

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