Big data, big dangers

India needs to negotiate the world of big data technology with adequate safeguards

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

Published - June 15, 2017 12:02 am IST

With the Supreme Court turning its gaze on privacy issues associated with Aadhaar, can we take a moment to look to the myriad ways in which our privacy is being assaulted in the digital world? When my neighbour across the street got too curious about my life, I installed curtains to block his gaze. But what about when the invisible drones at Facebook send him a message that one of my colleagues has tagged me enjoying a music festival in Goa and he might want to “like” this picture? How do we draw a curtain around our digital lives?

Think beyond the nosy neighbour to the corporations that want to utilise minutia of your life to sell products that you may or may not need. Corporations have always been interested in understanding consumer behaviour and been collecting data about users using their products or service. What is unique about Big Data Technology (BDT) is the scale at which this data collection can take place. For instance, Google has stored petabytes of information about billions of people and their online browsing habits. Similarly, Facebook and Amazon have collected information about social networks. In addition to using this data to improve products or services that these corporations offer, the stored data is available also to highest bidders and governments of nations where these companies are based.

Looming dangers

One major problem with collecting and storing such vast amounts of data overseas is the ability of owners of such data stores to violate the privacy of people. Even if the primary collectors of data may not engage in this behaviour, foreign governments or rogue multinationals could clandestinely access these vast pools of personal data in order to affect policies of a nation. Such knowledge could prove toxic and detrimental in the hands of unscrupulous elements or hostile foreign governments. The alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election tells us that these possibilities are not simply science fiction fantasies.

The other major problem is the potential drain of economic wealth of a nation. Currently, the corporations collecting such vast amounts of data are all based in developed countries, mostly in the U.S. Most emerging economies, including India, have neither the knowledge nor the favourable environment for businesses that collect data on such a vast scale. The advertising revenue that is currently earned by local newspapers or other media companies would eventually start to flow outside the country to overseas multinationals. A measure of this effect can already be seen in a way that consumer dollars are being redistributed across the spectrum of U.S. businesses touching them. For instance, communication carriers such as AT&T, Verizon and cable networks find that their revenue has remained flat to slightly falling in the last five years whereas the revenues of Google, which depend on these carriers to provide connectivity to consumers, are increasing exponentially. Unless we employ some countermeasures, we should expect the same phenomenon repeat itself for corporations based in India.

Sadly, BDT is a tiger the world is destined to ride. It is no longer possible to safely disembark, but staying on is not without its perils. The only way to negotiate this brave new world is to make sure that India does it on her own terms and finds a way to protect both financial rewards and ensure individual privacy and national security through appropriate safeguards.

What India can do

China has apparently understood this dynamic and taken measures to counter this threat. It has encouraged the formation of large Internet companies such as Baidu and Alibaba and deterred Google and others from having major market share in China by using informal trade restraints and anti-monopoly rules against them. India may not be able to emulate China in this way, but we could take other countermeasures to preserve our digital economy independence. The heart of building companies using BDT is their ability to build sophisticated super-large data centres. By providing appropriate subsidies such as cheap power and real estate, and cheap network bandwidth to those data centres, one would encourage our industries to be able to build and retain data within our boundaries. In the short term, we should also create a policy framework that encourages overseas multinationals such as Google and Amazon to build large data centres in India and to retain the bulk of raw data collected in India within our national geographical boundaries.

Moreover, we should also build research and development activities in Big Data Science and data centre technology at our academic and research institutions that allow for better understanding of the way in which BDT can be limited to reduce the risk of deductive disclosure at an individual level. This will require developing software and training for individuals on how to protect their privacy and for organisations and government officials to put in place strict firewalls, data backup and secure erasure procedures. In the West, we already are seeing a number of start-ups developing technology that enables users to control who gets access to the data about their behaviour patterns in the digital world.

The government has approved the “Digital India” Plan that aims to connect 2.5 lakh villages to the Internet by 2019 and to bring Wi-Fi access to 2.5 lakh schools, all universities and public places in major cities and major tourist centres. This is indeed a very desirable policy step. But unless we evolve appropriate policies to counter the side effects of the Digital Plan, this could also lead to the unforeseen eColonisation of India.

Hemant Kanakia is a computer scientist and investor in high technology companies. The views expressed are personal

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