governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Big Data’

Privacy – an elite fantasy

privacy

Elite concerns are usually disconnected from the ground reality. For the 1 per cent of Indian who live privileged, cocooned lives, the judicial right to privacy created by the Supreme Court yesterday will add yet another layer with which they can insulate themselves from the “barbarians at the gate”. So, here is what the rich may now be able to do which they couldn’t earlier.

Is the right to euthanasia next?

First, they may now be able to refuse medical treatment and die in their beds, peacefully, instead of being compulsorily hooked up to tiresome, life-saving machines in hospitals. But try explaining this “right” to the millions of poor Indians for whom just getting admitted to hospitals is still a dream and refusing treatment would be unimaginable.

Deletable past lives

Second, the well-heeled may now be able to press for being judicially forgotten – all traces of their past lives and identities expunged, giving them a fresh start without having to flee to distant London or arid Dubai. Contrast this with the Herculean efforts the average Indian makes to become part of a database and have an officially recognized identity – a voter card, a passport, a PAN card, anything which proves that she exists.

LGBT sex may become legitimate

Third, those with alternative lifestyles – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community might now hope to be free of the notoriously archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes everything other than straight sex. But would this give them the right to marry a partner of their choice; adopt children or be socially accepted?

Evidencing crime will become harder

Now ponder the downsides. Law enforcement agencies struggle to manage terrorism, Naxalism, urban mafiosi, drug pushers and armed rural gangsters even today. “Privacy” concerns will provide a legal shield to undermine information collection, crime detection and investigation. Nothing less than the over-the-top, draconian Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act – used today only in the “disturbed” areas in Kashmir and parts of the North East – would be effective. Since gangsters can afford to hire the best lawyers, the violation of their fundamental right to privacy in the process of enforcing the law, will now become a favourite ploy to keep these worthies free to wreak havoc.

How intrusive is the Indian State anyway?

Will this fundamental to privacy help the 200 million slum dwellers or the unknown millions who sleep under the stars on urban streets? Is not our fear of the “big State” overblown? The India I know is under policed, under governed and under regulated. There is a plethora of agencies, laws and rules to bind down anyone and yet very few – mostly the timid, those mindful of their public image and the law respecting middle class get intimidated by the legal spaghetti. The rich buy their way out of any mess and the poor are so inured to danger and risk that it is second nature for them to live with uncertainty.

Biometric targeting of beneficiaries to be abandoned?

Take the case of Adhaar for verifying the identity of those using the Public Distribution System (PDS). Recent studies in Jharkhand by responsible social scientists – Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera – found that 15 percent of the eligible PDS beneficiaries were excluded because of technical glitches or access problems in using Aadhar as a test of identity. But 85 percent of the beneficiaries were targeted correctly. If the right to privacy eliminates the use of Adhaar, we will be back to what Rajiv Gandhi famously called the 25 percent approach to poverty reduction – where 75 percent of the funds are siphoned-off by intermediaries. How and why would a reversion to a system which has huge inclusion errors (ineligible people getting benefited) be any better?

Big data to be throttled?

Finally, consider how retrograde is the fight by “right to privacy” advocates against big data. It is big data – the billions of pieces of information on human behavior and preferences linked to specific human demographics, which enables algorithms to predict trends, thereby aligning products and services with customer needs. This is what makes big data commercially valuable. In price sensitive markets like India, telecom and e-commerce penetration is being driven by the potential to monetize big data. Putting brakes on this process means putting brakes on the rolling out of technology services which will become more expensive if the actual user is to pay for them.

India lost an opportunity in 2014 when facebook- Bharti Airtel wanted to roll out free internet services on mobiles. TRAI regulations ensured that this venture never took off, thereby slowing down internet access for all except the 300 million people in the upper most income segments who can afford it.

Tilting at windmills

Nandan Nilekani is now an evangelist against “digital colonialism” in the context of tech majors like Google and Amazon aggressively expanding their presence in India. We should be wary of tech industry insiders playing the “anti-foreign” card. Similar attempts were made by the infamous “Bombay Club” to scuttle the 1992 economic liberalization. Their contention was that liberalizing the domestic market was fine but Indian industry should continue to be protected from foreign competition. We are fortunate that the government of the day paid no heed to this self-serving agenda.

Keep India open for competition

India is a big economy with very shallow industrialization. We need to remain open to all economic actors – domestic and foreign who want to invest in India. It would be a huge mistake to emulate the xenophobia of the United States and draw up our bridges. Data is the new oil. Data security needs to be ensured, irrespective of whether data is stored in India, or overseas. But generating anti-foreign hysteria is not in our interest as we try to integrate into global supply chains and become a part of the global value creation eco-system.

It is easy enough to legislate rights. We have many notional rights. Creating a level playing field for all citizens to enjoy these rights, equally, is another matter altogether.

Also at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/privacy-an-elite-fantasy/

Liberals; smell the coffee please

police

(photo credit: http://www.thehindu.com)

Liberals and human rights advocates are a queasy bunch with no stomach to face up to the honest truth that effective governance implies a better informed and more intrusive government.

Light handed regulation” is the mantra of neo-liberal economics. But such regulation fails unless the regulator can monitor compliance with the rule of law by acquiring more and better, real time data on individuals and business entities.

Take the simple case of ensuring that shop workers are not exploited by owners and get at least one weekly holiday and enjoy restricted, daily, working hours. The “heavy handed” manner this is done is by shutting entire markets down on a specific day and prescribing shop opening and closing hours. The “light handed regulation” option could give shop keepers the liberty to set their own working hours. But to protect workers’ rights, effectively, it would need to generate a real time centrally networked, database of cash transactions- to validate shop working hours and a bio-metric clock- doing the same for employees working hours.  How does this square with the Liberal preference for “small government”?

Consider the case of self-assessment by tax payers. Regulation cannot get lighter than that. But to be effective, it has to be coupled with predictable and significant sanctions against deviant behavior. This means generating a database, on each tax payer, comprising an effective audit trail of all financial transactions and a tax agent randomly trawling this data, using “red flags”, so that deviance can be detected and brought to trial.

Tracking phone call, social media, emails and physical movement of individuals all becomes part of “Big data” which needs to be captured to provide the information required for credible sanctions systems. This is especially necessary, in democracies like India, where all sanctions are appealable and hence must be backed by “judicial quality evidence”.

“Big data” does have unintended but positive outcomes. The clamour, amongst the elite,  for the status symbol of publicly provided, security guards can be greatly reduced, if “security” comes with a GPS enabled, real time, tracking of location and real time reporting, via a smart phone app, of whom the VIP is meeting as a routine procedure.

No Liberal would object to the installation of CCTV cameras where they live, to protect their lives and property. But this comes with the potential downside of intrusive government. Taking cameras closer to people generates “Big data”. Its value lies in the ability to constantly trawl it to prevent crime (or even natural disasters), by identifying “hot spots” and patterns of criminal behavior and to bring criminals to book. Constraints on individual privacy are inevitable. Also there is bound to be misuse, despite checks to prevent gaming; for example the illegal use of individual information, acquired for security purposes, to black mail individuals. There will always be “insiders”, who could trade off any inherent inefficiency in keeping “big data” secure.

Is Edward Snowden a traitor or an American hero? His country folk were divided on the fine point of the “tipping point” between an “insiders” duty to guard official secrets versus the citizens moral responsibility to fight “Big Government”. There is a stark choice between ensuring security and preserving individual freedom. Too much individual freedom (say the right to religious beliefs which may even bar or restrict social integration, as is available in India and the US) can be as negative as too little individual freedom (China, Russia) in the name of national security.

But the flash points where security collides with individual freedom are more often due to “entrenched privilege” being threatened, than the high ground of morality being squashed.  Indian Liberals, who willingly submit to racial profiling and body searches at US and UK immigration, are outraged if an Indian security personnel, so much as dares to question them about what they are carrying in their bags, whilst boarding domestic flights, trains or buses.

Of course most Liberals in India belong to the elite. For them the State and its officials are only to be suffered, not recognised. There is an implicit sense of “entitlement” amongst the elite, who expect to be “served”, even if they dodge their taxes. Much of this springs from the unfortunate spectacle, of fawning subordinates around a preening public official, in much the same manner, as courtiers may have supplicated before our erstwhile Maharajas.

Liberals mourn that there is too little reliance on “trust” and too much emphasis on “surveillance”. But isn’t it ironic, that in the US: the birth place of Liberal policy practices and “small government”, it is “legally enforceable contracts”, which are the life blood of social and even personal interaction. A society governed by “contracts” by definition, is a society which does trust anyone, including the State, to do the right thing.

It is the same with the theory of incentives. The fundamental basis of neo-liberal policy practice is to embed the correct “incentives” in regulations, which then elicit the desired behavioural outcomes associated with the desired results. The provision of artificially embedded incentives, as neo-Liberal policy practice seeks to provide, inevitably come with intrusive metrics of measurement because what is not measured can neither be sanctioned nor rewarded. Regulatory intrusion, big data and “big” government are the inevitable consequence.

In direct contrast, are systems which rely on “belief”, “religion” or “spirituality”. These seek to bind people to a higher morality and blind them to the needs of individuality. Communism is one such “belief” which relies on the morality of the State and not contracts. Of course, it also comes with high levels of State control and intrusive oversight by a bureaucracy of the faithful, exactly as any other religion.

The Liberal position becomes even more laughable when we consider the available “best practice” on poverty reduction; a key objective for developing economies. “Tightly targeted, cash transfers” to the poor is the latest mantra. But these have to be preceded by identification of the poor; close monitoring of their locations and current incomes. In fact, what this requires is a national database of the entire population of India so that we can segregate the poor from the non- poor; citizens from non-citizens and similarly along any other targeted classification (gender, caste, religion or spatial location). 25% of the Indian population is migratory. This requires “spatial location” enabled assessment of their current economic status since poverty levels vary across states. You can’t get bigger data than all these demographics on 1.25 billion people.

The loss of individual privacy is embedded in the logic of extensive digitization of information. Think of the benefits from being able to identify people uniquely; record their demographics (age, marital status, gender, health and education metrics) securely; store transactions securely and access the stored information instantly. If it is alright for the government to be intrusive versus the poor, why is it so horrible for the “privacy” of the rest to be invaded? The much touted right of the individual “to be forgotten” can exist versus other individuals (though how even that could be enforced is not known) but it must never exist against the State.

“Big data” and a better informed government are here to stay. Liberals should wake up and smell the coffee.

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