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Budget's Economic Survey Pushes For Interlinking and Selling Citizens' Data for Private Purposes

We are alarmed and concerned at the government’s vision to collate comprehensive, exhaustive data about every citizen and making it available for commercial use by private entities as stated in the budget document the Economic Survey 2018-19 published on July 4. Chapter 4 of the Economic Survey (a budget document laid before parliament)Data “Of the People, By the People, For the People argues for expanding collection and interlinking of comprehensive data on citizens, violating Supreme Court judgments on privacy and Aadhaar. It makes a case for integrating citizens’ data for commercial purposes even when no legal framework provides for this. It assumes privacy concerns will be taken care of by a forthcoming data protection law which has in fact been pending on the drawing board for years. 

Already, in the government’s coercive and callous interlinking of Aadhaar in existing databases, we have witnessed alarming data leaks that have had substantial financial implications and legal consequences for ordinary citizens. It makes blanket assertions that technology measures would protect privacy in the future, claiming “technology has largely kept pace to mitigate” (data leaks) when the government is yet to provide any redressal or compensation to those who have suffered from data leaks.

It states the example of how Telangana has integrated multiple points of information and data on thousands of its residents and their relatives in its ‘Samagra’ without stating how this was done in the absence of privacy and data protection laws. The document argues for using Aadhaar numbers to create a health registry to sell sensitive medical data to commercial entities for a profit. It argues “people can always opt out of divulging data to the government where possible”, but so far the government has put all its energies in coercing citizens to give their data, cutting them off from essential services if they do not provide data. 

It erroneously claims that increased data collection and integrating databases will reduce inclusion errors and rectify exclusion errors. This is a wrong claim to make. In the past few years, both UPA and NDA governments have pushed for Aadhaar enrolment by claiming this will help improve welfare services. This has led to denial of wage payments, food grains, vital social security pensions to thousands of individuals, especially the elderly and those who work with their hands, who face faulty data entry, network errors, servers and network errors, and biometric authentication failures because of changes while working with their hands over time. Since 2017, the Right to Food Campaign has recorded more than 40 deaths when the most vulnerable got cut from any social security in the fault-ridden transition to Aadhaar. One such death was recorded in Jharkhand’s Latehar last month when an Adivasi farmer 65 year old Ramcharan Munda died after he was denied food rations for three months. The government has failed to act responsibly and provide any relief and voluntary alternatives for those facing such problems because of its manic focus on data linking. Yet, in this new document it again pushes for more of the same.

It is worrying that the budget document of the vision for the Indian economy once again states two different standards of privacy rights for India’s poor and rich. It declares: “care must also be taken to not impose the elite’s preference of privacy on the poor, who care for a better quality of living the most”, thus imposing its own assumptions that the poor can do with fewer privacy protections than the rich. It falsely pits welfare rights against privacy rights. Justice Chandrachud had warned against this in the Aadhaar judgement, noting: "The refrain that the poor need no civil and political rights and are concerned only with economic well being has been utilised through history to wreak the most egregious violations of human rights." In fact the vulnerable need stronger privacy rights at a time of heightened profiling of citizens based on their religion and caste for political purposes, as seen with the NRC in Assam, and lynchings all over the country. . 

Further advocating for unchecked collecting and collating of data on citizens will only lead to further undermining of our rights, and to worse surveillance and data breaches.

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