Checks and balances needed for mass surveillance of citizens, say experts

Published - December 09, 2017 08:00 pm IST - BENGALURU

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A number of measures are required to protect law-abiding citizens from mass surveillance and misuse of their personal data, according to top technology and legal experts.

The measures include issuing of tokens by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) instead of Aadhaar numbers and having an official in the judiciary give permission to vigilance.

The experts were participating in a panel discussion on ‘Navigating Big Data Challenges’ at Carnegie India’s Global Technology Summit here. They also said there was a need to implement ‘de-identification of data’ or preventing a person’s identity from being connected with information.

The moderator of the discussion was Justice B.N. Srikrishna, a former Supreme Court judge, who was also heading a government-appointed committee of experts to identify “key data protection issues” and recommend methods to address them. Justice Srikrishna told the panellists that Aadhaar or the unique identification number had empowered the people. But in situations where the State wants all the information about citizens from different service providers because of its suspicions related to terrorism or criminal activity, he asked, what is the method to create a balance?

“Surveillance is like salt in cooking which is essential in tiny quantities, but counterproductive even if slightly in excess,” responded Sunil Abraham, executive director of Bengaluru-based think tank, Centre for Internet and Society. He said there was a need to make a surveillance system which had privacy by design built into it.

Mr. Abraham said that his organisation had proposed to the UIDAI that it used ‘tokenisation,’ which meant that whenever there was a ‘know your customer’ requirement, the Aadhaar number was not accessed by organisations like telecom firms or the banks. Instead, when the citizens used various services via smart cards or pins, a token got generated, which was controlled by the UIDAI. Organisations like banks and telecom firms can store those token numbers in their database. He said this would make it harder for unauthorised parties to combine databases. But at the same time would enable law enforcement agencies to combine database using the appropriate authorizations and infrastructure.

“UIDAI is considering this, they call it the dummy Aadhaar numbers. We need technical as well as institutional checks and balances,” said Mr. Abraham.

Countries like the U.S also have processes like Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA court) which entertains applications made by the U.S Government for approval of electronic surveillance, physical search, and certain other forms of investigative actions for foreign intelligence purposes.

“My concern is that in the current system, surveillance can be done by the State machinery. I don’t necessarily suggest FISA court.... but some kind of mechanism where (one can’t) be held at the mercy of incestuous State machinery,” said Rahul Matthan, a partner at law firm Trilegal. “But have some second person who is outside the influence of this system (and) who actually says ‘yes this is a terrorist which requires us to do mass surveillance,” he said.

Artificial Intelligence

A large amount of information or Big data ranging from financial, health to political insights of people is being collected by different organisations and service providers which is sitting in different silos. All of this is likely going to be linked through Aadhaar. Mr. Srikrishna asked what if a situation arises where all of this data is aggregated and using artificial intelligence and machine learning, one is able to analyse it and profile individuals. He said “would that be not a terrifying scenario” where the State can act super-monitor for citizens. He asked how can citizens be guarded against it?

Mr.Srikrishna was referring to the ‘Social Credit System’ proposed by the Chinese government for creating a national reputation system to rate the trustworthiness of its citizens including their economic and social status. It works as a mass surveillance tool and uses big data analysis technology.

“It is a possibility. What stands in the way of it becoming a reality (in India) is a robust law,” said Mr.Matthan. “Technology is so powerful that it could equally be used for good as well as bad.”

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