Bangalore-based lawyer, activist and research fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Dr. Usha Ramanathan analyzed the changing role of the State and the extent of its power through technology. Dr. Ramanathan has been closely studying the Unique Identification Number project (UID) and other projects for the past few years. The questions in the session ranged from concerns around privacy, security, and e-governance initiatives, to relooking at the role of the citizen. Dr. Ramanathan suggested that today’s citizen could be seen more as a consumer rather than someone with authority and rights. Ramanathan began with what she stated was an unjustified refrain that is commonly taken up in today’s times: that if you do not use technology despite it being available, then you cannot have anything to do with the public space. Additionally, one who does not use technology is seen as being behind the times. She stressed on the importance of caution when it came to technology usage, instead of being opposed to it, especially since technology is often depicted as being ‘neutral, incorruptible, and clean’. Ramanathan believes that the freedom of the citizen and the idea of terror are what challenge the established order of the State, which seeks to acquire more power in the form of equipping itself with technology on the pretext of being prepared for attacks and security threats.
A significant fallout of this fear, Ramanathan adds, is the State’s bullying of people to give information about themselves. For instance, there was the Collection of Statistics Act in 1952. The newly independent India’s top priority was self-reliance. The State needed to inform itself about the kinds of resources that were available, and so set up a department that would collect this data. The information was given by the industries to the various departments in the government, which in turn would help the State invest, develop support for infrastructure, and so on. However, a review conducted in 2000 stated that post-Liberalization, this law had stopped being effective. More contemporaneously, the Indian Cyber Laws state that any user of a commercial internet café must compulsorily provide an Identity Proof, a photograph, and telephone number, while the owners are expected to keep a record of all the sites that have been visited during the browsing session. This data would have to be kept on record for a year, and refusal to share private data would mean not being allowed to use the service.
In December 2009, a project called the National Intelligence Grid (NIG) was proposed in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks, and was established for a period of 18 months. The logic behind its formation was that since the State was busy protecting its borders, it could not adequately protect its citizens and prevent the failure of intelligence. Eerily, it was also suggested that the top corporations should form territorial armies. The NIG would aim to get counter-terrorist intelligence in real time (through keeping tabs on tax payments, bank details, airline ticket information, etc), and, according to a report in The Hindu, to connect databases of the security agencies. After the NIG group made a presentation to the Cabinet, a RTI was filed asking for the disclosure of the presentation. After deferring reply to the appeal, the presentation was Notified, so that it would not come under the purview of the RTI.
Dr. Ramanathan emphasized that when it came to data, the issue is how it is controlled and democratized. For instance, since ‘data’ is considered the new property and can be used in multiple ways (like profiling for markets), private companies stand to generate profits from the data collected. Perhaps in this sense, through undertakings like the Unique Identification Project, there is an interesting shift in the role of the State, where it becomes the primary customer, while the corporations convert the data into various products and sell them. After the Supreme Court declared that the UID could not be made mandatory, the developers decided that if the government would not use it for public services, they could sell it in the market for new applications. The team behind the UID Project had stated that it would be a solution to corruption and leakages. However, the details of how the UID project would achieve that have been subject to vigorous debate since it concerns the violation of individual privacy. The State, Dr. Ramanathan opines, should be concerned with ‘administration’ and not with governance of individuals. So while technology is exciting, it is imperative to ask searching questions of it.
Report: Pooja Nayak
Photography: Marina George & Samuel Buchoul
Editing: Chitralekha Manohar & Samuel Buchoul