A simple Google search defines data protection as a set of privacy laws and policies that minimises intrusion into one’s privacy caused by the collection, storage, and dissemination of personal data. The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal brought into conversation the need for data protection, and a person’s right to privacy. The disturbing revelations in the aftermath of the scandal forced not only governments, but also private companies to re-evaluate their privacy policies.
To put things into perspective, according to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, the number of Internet users in India is set to reach five hundred million by June 2018. With this and the central government’s push towards ‘Digital India’, India’s digital footprint is set to increase exponentially—and yet, our legislation doesn’t reflect that. It is important to remember that India doesn’t have any set data protection laws yet. Instead, it is loosely monitored under the IT Act (2000), which states that “disclosure of information, knowingly and intentionally, without the consent of the person concerned and in breach of the lawful contract is punishable with imprisonment for a term extending to three years and fine extending to Rs 5,00,000.” Apart from this act, the Supreme Court also ruled that the ‘Right to Privacy’ is a fundamental right. Not an absolute right, but a fundamental one.
Now arises the question—why should our country’s legislation matter? To put it in layman’s terms, your data can be used against you for more than just identity fraud or credit card theft. In fact, as demonstrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, access to your data often means the ability to influence your behaviour, thoughts, and actions. Recent reports suggest that our central government wants to join the data collation bandwagon—saying that they wish to deploy a ‘social media analytical tool‘ that will create digital profiles of citizens and gauge their opinions on official policies. It doesn’t end with monitoring—according to the tender submitted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the platform is expected to provide automated reports, tactical insights as well as comprehensive workflows to initiate engagement across digital channels. The platform may be used to disseminate content and hence should support publishing features.
The goal of this tool is to target negative opinions with ‘personalised campaigns’ that shall help neutralise the negative propaganda of the adversary. The tool also plans to use predictive analysis to ‘mould public perception’ in a positive manner for the country and inculcate nationalistic feelings.
The tool, which will be able to monitor social media networks in all major Indian languages as well as several foreign ones such as French, German, and Chinese, will use Natural Language Processing to extract sentiment as well as the context. Using this information, citizens will be subject to personalised responses.
The scope of the monitoring tool is wide—from location-based insights to get exact location details to the ability to see conversations of each user is the reverse chronological order. This mass data collection and monitoring scheme is the top of a slippery slope, and while it may seem to have come from nowhere, it is the natural progression to the government’s Central Monitoring System. This system gives Indian Security Agencies and Income tax officials centralised access to the country’s telecommunications network. While the CMS is monitored by government agencies, this new tool will be monitored by the Social Media Communications Hub that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting will soon set up.
You should not underestimate the importance of your data, your opinions, and by extension, any possible dissent. With the government planning on listening and responding to data from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Flickr, Tumblr, Pinterest, Play Store, email, News Blogs, Forums, and Complaint Websites, the central flaw in our privacy protection plans still exists. Without any laws protecting citizens from having their data analysed without their consent, there is a stark lack of accountability and by extension, the possibility of misuse.
Sharing a status or thought doesn’t mean that it should be available to the government to scrutinise. While the government has monitored social media before, for national security purposes, the addition of targeted responses is a scary turn. Since we now know that well-targeted responses can actually influence public opinion and public responses, official responses from the Government to every citizen’s social activity is not the most comfortable of all thoughts.
Without a constitutional challenge, this new monitoring tool, when established, will remain largely unchecked, and without proper legislation, threats to your privacy would be dime-a-dozen. The right to expression, and freedom to think what you want without government interference is essential for a democratic system to be effective. In fact, even colonial government had more stringent privacy laws than the post-Independence government. The Telegraph Act didn’t allow government interception of communications unless public safety was under threat. The IT Act borrowed heavily from the Telegraph act but removed the public emergency and public safety conditions.
With our data at the mercy of the Government, the possibility of neutralising any serious dissent becomes very possible, and this may have very serious implications on our democratic process. So, of course, the question arises, should you trust the Government when it comes to your privacy?
Featured Image: Ungerboeck Software