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United Nations World Data Forum: What it means for India

A comprehensive legal framework for data requires to be more than a discussion or a report and which does not fall within the confines of a political regime

Written by Sharmila Nair | Published: October 26, 2018 4:12:24 pm
Data, Data laws in India, Data privacy law in India, Data Protection Bill, India Data Protection bill, India data regime A comprehensive legal framework for data requires to be more than a discussion or a report and which does not fall within the confines of a political regime. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

The second United Nations World Data Forum held recently in Dubai renews hopes that India could lead the technological race if the fundamental UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are interlaced in its policies. These principles work towards a neutral and people-centric approach to data, bypassing political and financial power-plays. A comprehensive legal framework for data requires to be more than a discussion or a report and which does not fall within the confines of a political regime. The following three fundamental factors should be taken into account for technological advancement:

Value of Data

One of the common aspects around policies governing big data has been about understanding the value of the data for the public. For technological advancement to work for the greater good of society, it is imperative to identify and exhibit the value of data generated by and for even a marginalised, minority or weak section of society. It is not sufficient to take the data from people without informing them, in a simplified and creative manner, about the benefits of the data use.

Read more: Personal Data Protection Bill 2018: How grey area on state interest will give govt freedoms that private entities will not enjoy

The Indian government must initiate the process of exhibiting the benefit and value of data collection to the people prior to technological advancement which feeds off this big data. For instance, analysis of big data has resulted in path breaking solutions and innovations for this new age. For instance, UN Global Pulse has been working with Twitter to classify and measure anti-refugee xenophobic tweets along routes in Europe, understand the spread of Zika using real-time data and even has a deep learning algorithm to detect rescue events being conducted in parts of the world.

As Director of Global Pulse Robert Kirkpatrick stated, what is highlighted often is the risk of misuse; however, “missed use of data” is as much an issue as misuse of the data, often due to lack of regulations. With several breaches of privacy in India in recent times, public trust has been broken and the same needs to be strengthened through data collaborations, concerted efforts and systematic use of information for policy response and regulatory frameworks.

Read more: Simply Put: The language of data protection

Open data and media involvement

Data is not a monopoly and open data partnerships must be undertaken by entities. But in India with trust breached by emergence of suspected instances of predictive policing, open data is required for transparent governance of people. A rights-based access approach with educating people is mandatory. The media, through creative surveys and by educating people, can secure trust by demonstrating the value in data collected.

Open policies on data collection, risk assessments and having a sandbox approach to any training data are some of the ways for India to move from pilot to scale in this digital era.

A survey conducted during the Forum showed that 70 per cent of the 350 international delegates believed we are facing a crisis in lack of trust on data and 38 per cent believed actions needed to be taken by agencies and the government to increase the data literacy of citizens. For instance, the Open Source unit of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has multi-function teams combining data science, open source intelligence and behavioural science to provide evidence-based advice for foreign policy decisions and harnesses the power of data to identify security challenges faced at a national level.

Read more: Draft data protection bill: Panel frames tension; digital growth versus personal privacy

However, in India, the recent Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 blocked out the basic principles of openness and accountability of the government. The Indian government has heavily invested in technologies without deliberating on the policies required to regulate this space or even the guidelines of accountability. Several discussions on the ethics of data and artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) led to the understanding that an unreasonably high privacy level with zero accountability will reduce the volume of big data required for AI and ML innovations.

Power imbalances

A third concern is power imbalances while deciding the issue of data governance and public trust. According to a DOMO report, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is currently created across the world. This why India’s Central Statistics Office (CSO) gains importance and ensuring that its role is not undermined by political powers becomes crucial for an unbiased data set which would be the foundation for technological growth.

A multi-sector approach, on a continuous basis, which is not regulated politically or financially is crucial. It is evident that technology has outpaced regulations. Organisations like Google are self-regulating by presenting an ethics statement and several AI researchers have signed a pledge promising not to assist in AI warfare. However, the fluidity of data makes it extremely difficult if only private entities and organisations take a stand.

Read more: Srikrishna data protection report: ‘Entities must maintain quality, security of data’ 

The Indian government needs to act and take stock of its own actions and create accountability. Misuse of the data to regulate the country is also the reason AI innovations such as the Punjab Artificial Intelligence System (PAIS) are being brought into the public domain without any technical and ethical infrastructures in place. While the risk of misuse needs to be avoided through regulations and for scaling up, it is also crucial to safely collect data wide enough to ensure a technological overhaul to simplify the daily lives of people.

While various departments such as Niti Aayog have put forth the impact of investing in AI for various sectors, India needs to take a step back and provide the basic regulations to be followed by the public and private entities for getting access to valuable data feed loop which could be used responsibly for technological advancement. For this, not only will citizens need to understand the value of their data circulating but the government will also need to implement the fundamental principles of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) within the Indian ecosystem.

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