Book Review: Why Collection of Information From Law-Abiding Citizens Is Still Problematic

Shivangi Narayan's 'Surveillance as Governance' says that the paradigm of governmental surveillance is more Kafkaesque than Orwellian.

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The recent revelations about the widespread spying on Indian citizens by governmental agencies, mediated by the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group, have justifiably shocked a lot of us, but not most of us. In such circumstances, we might even believe that in the age of social media and the attention economy, people are quite happy to be watched by anonymous government agents as long as it means someone is following them.

When asked about these reports in parliament, the only reply that the minister in charge of information technology gave was that “illegal surveillance is not possible” in India. The nonchalance with which the current government waved off all the reports and allegations on the misuse of Pegasus just goes to show that it truly understands the nature of modern governance as a vast operation of information capture. Modern governance is fundamentally founded on surveillance. The only difference between the routine functioning of governmental agencies and the current Pegasus hacking scandal is that the latter simply shifts the focus from the surveillance of populations to ‘authorised’ spying on individual citizens categorised as ‘threats to the state’ (a list which apparently included the current minister for information technology himself). In a strange way, Ashwini Vaishnaw’s response in parliament seems to be making the case for normalising spying as a routine and even benign governmental activity.

Shivangi Narayan
Surveillance as Governance: Aadhaar Big Data in Governance
Peoples Literature Publication (June 2021)

In her book Surveillance as Governance: Aadhaar | Big Data in Governance, Shivangi Narayan makes the argument that we do not really know how to respond to the reality of governance as surveillance. In most cases we take, the paradigm of governmental surveillance appears to be hacking or tapping phones, invading digital privacy, or even shadowy government agents following us around. Surveillance is seen through the prism of George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother is always actively watching. In her book on the UIDAI or Aadhaar project, Narayan finds this paradigm to be lacking. The major flaw of the Aadhaar project, she argues, is not characterised by active governmental interference in the lives of citizens, but passive governmental neglect. It is more Kafkaesque (like in The Trial) than Orwellian.

By focussing on the Orwellian metaphor, Narayan argues, we become captive to the myth of a “smoothly running bureaucracy and updated infrastructure. It assumes that all the information collected by the state is stored and analysed without any losses by the infrastructure and the bureaucracy functions perfectly to use the said information”. In this paradigm, privacy becomes a matter of concern for those who are involved in criminal activities, and it becomes difficult to understand why the collection of information from law-abiding citizens would still be problematic. To understand Aadhaar and its problems vis-à-vis privacy and the surveillance state we must shift from the Orwellian paradigm to the Kafkaesque where the latter is characterised by a “thoughtless bureaucracy…arbitrary errors and dehumanisation”.

The genealogy of the modern state, Narayan argues, is built on surveillance as a tool to gather information on citizens that plays two essential functions: firstly to target its policies (welfare, infrastructure, healthcare, education and so on) more efficiently and secondly for “training and converting a population into efficient and productive individuals”. The logic of the modern Indian state conforms absolutely to this managerial model, especially when it comes to the Aadhaar project. Indeed the former CEO of Infosys, Nandan Nilekani, was the chairman of UIDAI. Each Aadhaar card has a unique 12-digit number which is supposed to be linked with government schemes and policies to ensure efficient transfer of benefits and services to all those who are authorised to receive them. Yet as Narayan shows in her book through a detailed analysis of the government’s flagship welfare schemes – public distribution system, public health, MGNREGS, public education, and efforts at financial inclusion, claims of greater efficiency and productivity remain unfounded.

For example, the Aadhaar card is supposed to be used to authenticate the beneficiary at the PDS or ration shop. But as Narayan argues, citing a news report, most of the time the machines that authenticate Aadhaar cards are not working, so the disbursal is done manually. The authentication process itself takes up to eight minutes, so rather than allowing for greater efficiency, it slows down the process of distribution. In the case of public education, for example, Narayan finds the same inefficiency. In 2016, the minister for human resources, Smriti Irani had announced the government’s intention to track 200 million school-going children daily online. As Narayan writes, “no such database exists, though the portal is up and running. If you click on the report section of the portal, it has nothing to show”.

Also Read: The Different Ways in Which Aadhaar Infringes on Privacy

Narayan’s book seems to be making two arguments against the pervasive nature of modern governmental surveillance. Firstly, its utopian claims of greater efficiency are bellied by the actual shoddiness of the physical and bureaucratic infrastructure that is supposed to ensure the smoothness of the process. Internet connectivity is mostly absent, PoS authentication machines do not work, websites are set up without any data, fingerprint readers malfunction and the bureaucracy remains idle and indifferent. Secondly, Narayan argues that the use of Big Data in governance simply ignores social discrimination and bias, amplifying it rather than getting rid of it. Without understanding the structural forms of oppression and discrimination that are part and parcel of every society, the dream of efficiency and productivity will rather lead to a nightmare where people are excluded from state welfare on the basis of algorithmic decisions that are absolutely opaque even to the bureaucrats who use them.

Narayan’s book hesitates at this point. The solution to the first problem is quite obvious: greater connectivity, functioning machinery, fewer bureaucratic hurdles, in short better and more efficient use of technology, which is usually accomplished by the privatisation of governmental services. The solution to the second one is much more difficult: a sensitised bureaucracy, a greater understanding of prevalent forms of discrimination and bias, and more checks and balances in order to avoid black box algorithmic decision making. The problem however is that it seems difficult to achieve both these things together. The greater the efficiency of technology, the greater its functional opacity and the obliviousness to the lives of individuals. The institution of more bureaucratic checks and balances would work well to counter these tendencies, but at the cost of more red-tapism and lower governmental efficiency. This point, at which Narayan’s book is compelled to hesitate, does not mark the limits of her discourse on governmental surveillance. This limit, this impasse, at which her argument hesitates is nothing but the limit of the discourse of modern governmentality itself.