Following an investigation by The Indian Express which revealed how a Shenzhen-based big data firm, with links to the Chinese government, was systematically tracking over 10,000 prominent Indian citizens, the government, on Wednesday, set up an expert committee under the National Cyber Security Coordinator to examine the revelations and the broader implications of digital surveillance on the privacy and personal data of Indian citizens. Considering that the concerns over data security that lie at the heart of this investigation are also in line with apprehensions that led to the Indian government’s decision to ban Chinese apps, this is a welcome development. These issues need to be addressed. However, this is not a specifically Indian concern. US President Donald Trump’s stance on TikTok underlines growing concerns across the world, especially in the face of an increasingly aggressive China, over personal data being compromised and finding its way into jurisdictions over which there is no control.
At the core of these revelations is the worry that in an increasingly digital world, large quantities of seemingly unrelated, innocuous data can be amassed, pieced together, and then deployed for other purposes, with the individual concerned having little or no say over the flow of information. While some may raise questions over the usability of the data, the chances of “actionable intelligence” rise manifold as the quantum of data collected multiplies. The sheer scale, both in terms of width and depth, at which the targeted tracking of Indian citizens is being undertaken — from politicians, to bureaucrats, industrialists and civil society — alludes to the possibility of this threat materialising. In a liberal open democracy, such concerns should be articulated and addressed in a transparent manner. The necessary regulation to protect individual rights can be framed after consulting all stakeholders and accountability must be assigned.
While the issue has been raised with Beijing, the government must frame a strategy to deal with the issue of data surveillance at multiple levels. To begin with, norms of cyber hygiene — enforcing strict protocols on what information key government functionaries can share on social media platforms — could be enforced. Careful thought must go into building the institutional capacity required to pre-empt disinformation campaigns which the collected information could be deployed for. After all, the hybrid warfare strategy that incorporates this data seeks to do just that, to create social discord, discredit leadership and undermine institutions. Equally urgent is the task of putting in place a robust personal data protection framework with explicit provisions for seeking consent on data sharing and for examining and monitoring flow of information to third parties.
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