AP: Political Parties Want Voter Privacy Protected – As Long as They Are Not in Power

No matter how much privacy Indians demand, the current technical and governance setup does not allow any political party to change what is already built.

It was the YSR Congress (YSRC) Party that first demanded the protection of voters’ privacy in Andhra Pradesh during the 2019 elections. The demand was made in the backdrop of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) members getting caught with the Seva Mitra app, containing colour photos and 360-degree profiles of voters.

The political tides have changed. Now, the Jana Sena Party is demanding “My Data, My Right”, protesting against the Jagan Mohan Reddy government’s village volunteers collecting personal data. The TDP, too, has joined in, demanding an end to 360-degree profiling. Then what is the problem with the voters’ privacy?

It was the TDP government from 2014 to 2019 that pioneered 360-degree profiling in Andhra Pradesh.

Retired bureaucrat J. Satyanarayana, who was the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chairman and IT advisor to the Andhra Pradesh government, championed the cause of real-time governance and 360-degree profiling in the state.

But Andhra Pradesh was the second state to do the profiling.

Telangana had already started implementing it before Andhra Pradesh did with its Samagra Kutumba Survey and Integrated People Information Hub. Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh were the ground zero of these new experiments of pushing Aadhaar-based 360-degree profiling.

Imported model

This model of governance and push for Aadhaar is not native to India. It was primarily experimented in Estonia in Europe and later suggested to our bureaucrats to be adopted. The early experiment of the AP Smart Card project in 2006 under Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was the precursor to the Aadhaar project, even before Nandan Nilekani adopted it to be enforced across the country.

United Andhra Pradesh was the laboratory to experiment with the implementation of new governance models and technologies because of globalisation and its IT sector’s place in global trade. The bureaucracy was open to experimenting with anything new in the population to be ahead in global supply chains.

There are many problems with Aadhaar-based 360-degree profiling and there has been large-scale opposition to it, resulting in the Supreme Court of India recognising the fundamental right to privacy.

The Aadhaar project itself was heavily restricted by the court, saying it should be used only for welfare. Yet, the government passed new laws and rules to push it, disregarding the Supreme Court judgments.

The nature of the Aadhaar project and 360-degree profiling allows the government to track citizens from birth to death. This was necessary for the government in a post-26/11 India, where the government wanted to know everyone in the country.

However, the threat to civil liberties was always on since this information can be misused, affecting electoral democracy.

illustration: The Wire

The big player

The Aadhaar-Voter ID linking experiments in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh resulted in denying lakhs of voters the right to franchise in the 2018 assembly elections in Telangana. It also resulted in Aadhaar profiles being used for electioneering at large.

Yet, these issues were ignored – and continue to be ignored and unacknowledged – because the Indian IT sector pushes towards a data economy. Everything from Aadhaar, UPI, Digital Locker, and CoWIN are being exported to other countries just the way they have been imported into India from Estonia.

Welfare was always used as an excuse to push technologies that the Indian IT sector could use to create a domestic IT economy. Even today, the biggest opposition to the Privacy and Data Protection Bill is from the Indian IT sector, not politicians.

At every level of the Aadhaar litigation, it was not only the government but the Indian IT sector also opposed a pushback.

A strict Data Protection Bill will address issues of government data collection and how data is affecting elections and electoral politics. But these have been ignored by allowing the government to have exceptions to collect as much data as it wants to implement the rule of the law.

The present draft of the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2022, is not good enough to protect the citizens’ rights and it is just a rubber stamp on all government projects. A Data Protection Bill respecting the Supreme Court’s verdict on Aadhaar and the fundamental right to privacy would not allow 360-degree profiling. The draft Bill envisages it.

The political opposition seen in Andhra Pradesh is necessary to make people understand the dangers of information and with successive pushbacks, the people may realise the larger problem irrespective of whose politics prevail. But notwithstanding the opposition to these systems, as long as they are not opposed nationally, they will remain the same way.

Wanted: Global demand

The TDP’s plan to draw the attention of home minister Amit Shah to the issue of 360-degree profiling in Andhra Pradesh is useless when the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) itself wants 360-degree profiling databases like NATGRID, CCTNS, and ICJS for surveilling the citizens.

Indians already have a fundamental right to privacy, but who will implement it when the governments at both the Centre and state support Aadhaar? No court can implement its order or get these systems changed unless there is a change in the technical architecture of the Aadhaar system.

For the moment, this will happen only if there is a global demand from countries that want to buy Aadhaar, to change its code and architecture to respect individual privacy. No matter how much Indians demand privacy, the current technical and governance setup does not allow any political party to change what is already built.

The MHA is introducing a Bill for amending the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969, in the ongoing Parliament session. The Bill seeks to link all major government databases at the Centre and state to build the National Population Register using Aadhaar as a unique ID. The Bill puts into law the idea of 360-degree profiling and allows the MHA to track citizens from birth to death, something that has been widely experimented with and accepted in Andhra Pradesh.

No amount of opposition will change the 360-degree profiling even though everyone knows it is bad. Every political party in power will continue to push it and oppose it when in Opposition. This is how the Indian state functions: Aadhaar is now part of statecraft.

This article is published under Creative Commons Attribution–No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0). Read the original here.