The End of Privacy

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Unsurprisingly, chief executives are singing hosannas. Despite the Supreme Court still not having ruled on the constitutionality of Aadhaar at the time of writing , the government has gone about the business of inserting Aadhaar into every facet of public life, just in April, for instance, linking million voter ID cards to individual Aadhaar numbers with another million in the process of being linked. The question of consent has signally not been answered.

There is also the question of how our data might be used to manipulate election results, as Cambridge Analytica were accused of doing using vast swathes of Facebook profiles to influence politics in the United States as well as the Brexit referendum in Britain. There appears little question—the language of India Stack is indication enough—that Aadhaar data will be used to turn us into products. Tathagata Satpathy, a Biju Janata Dal member of parliament from Odisha, has been a longtime critic of Aadhaar and the threat of surveillance. He says Indian citizens should be paid for use of their data.

The easy and obvious counter is that Aadhaar is not a private company and unlike Google and Facebook, it does not give me a choice of joining or not. Also I can sign out of Google or Facebook but not from Aadhaar.

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If my data has monetary value for the State or for private players, why should I not benefit from it? If it is the new oil and it is extracted from me, why should I not be paid for providing the resource? That may have been the original motivation, as it might have been to ease the delivery of welfare to poor citizens. A registry grounded in tech would ensure ease of access to services and fix a maddeningly complex delivery system subject to massive leaks, went the claims.

Aadhaar was advertised as the tool to help the poor and disenfranchised claim their entitlements from the Public Distribution System. The card would also ease the burden on farmers, removing the rapacious agents in the mandis who took such swingeing cuts. Those who questioned the Manmohan Singh government or, indeed, Nilekani about the vulnerabilities of his system were accused of being elitists hindering a noble cause with petty and alarmist objections. In hindsight, it appears an unnecessarily elaborate subterfuge.

Few people in government or business appear to need much convincing of the necessity of Aadhaar. How else to explain the sudden turnaround of Narendra Modi himself, a trenchant critic when in opposition only to become an instant convert as prime minister, a cheerleader determined to see Aadhaar at the heart of national life? Already, this seems the case. In August, last year, it was reported that pregnant and lactating women would have to brandish their Aadhaar card before officials if they were to avail of a Rs 6, government benefit.

This was, presumably, to discourage sex selection but also has the corollary effect of monitoring women who might choose to have an abortion and monitoring doctors who perform abortions. The step from Aadhaar being an aid to eliminate a social evil like sex selection to being an aid to the moral policing of people is so short as to be non-existent. Indeed, Aadhaar as a tool for surveillance is acknowledged even by the UIDAI in its advertisements, in one of which a woman and her mother interview a maid to look after a baby boy.

But the failures of Aadhaar have been widely publicised. Procuring a fake Aadhaar card, judging by the numbers of fakes that have been produced, is not impossible. Nor is the fact of the card itself failing and valid holders going unrecognised by the system, as has been the case with poor people who have been denied their rations. Aadhaar failures have been linked to seven deaths by starvation, according to reports, in Jharkhand alone.

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Supporters of Aadhaar sigh wearily at such criticism, accusing those complaining, or merely questioning, of being Luddites. Technology cannot be stopped, they say. Any bugs will be smoothed out, but bugs cannot be an argument for abandoning progress. It sounds plausible. That is, a system that uses the poor as an excuse to exercise ever tighter control over people. The justice minister makes the attorney general argue in the Supreme Court that the government does not believe privacy is a fundamental right.

Immediately after the hearing, though, in which privacy was confirmed as a right, the justice minister claimed in a press conference that the government was fighting to preserve the privacy of citizens. This is autocracy masquerading as technocracy.

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Certainly, reports have been rife about the vulnerabilities of Aadhaar. In June last year, Fountain Ink , a Chennai-based magazine, reported that three American companies contracted by UIDAI with access to unencrypted biometric data of tens of millions of Indian residents had strong links to American, British, and French intelligence services. This could provide remedies against the most egregious intrusions.

But it is doubtful whether the law can be applied in practice, if too many people try to use it. Already the Europeans are hinting that they will not enforce the strict terms of the directive against America, which has less stringent protections. Policing the proliferating number of databases and the thriving trade in information would not only be costly in itself; it would also impose huge burdens on the economy.

Moreover, such laws are based on a novel concept: that individuals have a property right in information about themselves. Broadly enforced, such a property right would be antithetical to an open society. It would pose a threat not only to commerce, but also to a free press and to much political activity, to say nothing of everyday conversation. It is more likely that laws will be used not to obstruct the recording and collection of information, but to catch those who use it to do harm. Fortunately, the same technology that is destroying privacy also makes it easier to trap stalkers, detect fraud, prosecute criminals and hold the government to account.

The result could be less privacy, certainly—but also more security for the law-abiding. Whatever new legal remedies emerge, opting out of information-gathering is bound to become ever harder and less attractive.

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If most urban streets are monitored by intelligent video cameras that can identify criminals, who will want to live on a street without one? If most people carry their entire medical history on a plastic card that the emergency services come to rely on, a refusal to carry the card could be life-threatening. To get a foretaste of what is to come, try hiring a car or booking a room at a top hotel without a credit card.

In a way, the future may be like the past, when few except the rich enjoyed much privacy. To earlier generations, escaping the claustrophobic all-knowingness of a village for the relative anonymity of the city was one of the more liberating aspects of modern life.

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But the era of urban anonymity already looks like a mere historical interlude. There is, however, one difference between past and future. In the village, everybody knew everybody else's business. In the future, nobody will know for certain who knows what about them. That will be uncomfortable. But the best advice may be: get used to it. Join them. Subscribe to The Economist today. Media Audio edition Economist Films Podcasts. New to The Economist? Sign up now Activate your digital subscription Manage your subscription Renew your subscription.

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