New Delhi (ABC Live): Digital India : The 21st century has witnessed such an explosive rise in the number of ways in which we use information, that it is widely referred to as ‘the information age’. It is believed that by 2020, the global volume of digital data we create is expected to reach 44 zettabytes.
Much of that new information will consist of personal details relating to individuals, including information relating to the products they have purchased, the places they have travelled to and data which is produced from “smart devices” connected to the Internet.
With the rapid development of technology, computers are able to process vast quantities of information in order to identify correlations and discover patterns in all fields of human activity. Enterprises around the world have realised the value of these databases and the technology for its proper mining and use is evolving every day.
Proprietary algorithms are being developed to comb this data for trends, patterns and hidden nuances by businesses.
Many of these activities are beneficial to individuals, allowing their problems to be addressed with greater accuracy.
For instance, the analysis of very large and complex sets of data is done today through Big Data analytics. Employing such analytics enables organisations and governments to gain remarkable insights into areas such as health, food security, intelligent transport systems, energy efficiency and urban planning.
This is nothing short of a digital revolution. This digital revolution has permeated India as well.
Recognising its significance, and that it promises to bring large disruptions in almost all sectors of society, the Government of India has envisaged and implemented the “Digital India” initiative. This initiative involves the incorporation of digitisation in governance; healthcare and educational services; cashless economy and digital transactions; transparency in bureaucracy; fair and quick distribution of welfare schemes etc to empower citizens.
With nearly 450 million Internet users and a growth rate of 7-8%, India is well on the path to becoming a digital economy, which has a large market for global players.
This digital economy is expected to generate new market growth opportunities and jobs in the coming 40-50 years.
While the transition to a digital economy is underway, the processing of personal data has already become ubiquitous in both the public and private sector. Data is valuable per se and more so, when it is shared, leading to creation of considerable efficiency.
The reality of the digital environment today, is that almost every single activity undertaken by an individual involves some sort of data transaction or the other. The Internet has given birth to entirely new markets: those dealing in the collection, organisation, and processing of personal information, whether directly, or as a critical component of their business model.
As has been noted by the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy
: “‘Uber’, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. ‘Facebook’, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. ‘Alibaba’, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And ‘Airbnb’, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.”
Something as simple as hailing a taxi now involves the use of a mobile application which collects and uses various types of data, such as the user’s financial information, her real-time location, and information concerning her previous trips. Data is fundamentally transforming the way individuals do business, how they communicate, and how they make their decisions. Businesses are now building vast databases of consumer preferences and behaviour. Information can be compressed, sorted, manipulated, discovered and interpreted as never before, and can thus be more easily transformed into useful knowledge.
The low costs of storing and processing information and the ease of data collection has resulted in the prevalence of long-term storage of information as well as collection of increasingly minute details about an individual which allows an extensive user profile to be created.
Such information can then be used to create customised user profiles, based on their past online behaviour, which has the benefit of reducing the time required to complete a transaction. For instance, e-commerce websites track previous purchases, use algorithms to predict what sorts of items a user is likely to buy, thereby reducing the time spent on each purchase.
There are a large number of benefits to be gained by collecting and analysing personal data from individuals. Pooled datasets allow quicker detection of trends and accurate targeting. For instance, in the healthcare sector, by collecting and analysing large data sets of individual’s health records and previous hospital visits, health care providers could make diagnostic predictions and treatment suggestions;an individual’s personal locational data could be used for monitoring traffic and improving driving conditions on the road; banks can use Big Data techniques to improve fraud detection;16 insurers can make the process of applying for insurance easier by using valuable knowledge gleaned from pooled datasets.
At the same time, the state processes personal data for a plethora of purposes, and is arguably its largest processor. In India, the state uses personal data for purposes such as the targeted delivery of social welfare benefits, effective planning and implementation of government schemes, counter-terrorism operations, etc. Such collection and use of data is usually backed by law, though in the context of counter-terrorism and intelligence gathering, it appears not to be the case.
Thus both the public and the private sector are collecting and using personal data at an unprecedented scale and for multifarious purposes. While data can be put to beneficial use, the unregulated and arbitrary use of data, especially personal data, has raised concerns regarding the privacy and autonomy of an individual. Some of the concerns relate to centralisation of databases, profiling of individuals, increased surveillance and a consequent erosion of individual autonomy.
This was also the subject matter of the landmark judgement of the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy, which recognised the right to privacy as a fundamental right.
The Supreme Court stated that the “right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution”.
Further, it went on to recognise informational privacy as a facet of the right to privacy and directed the Union Government to put in place a robust data protection regime to ensure protection against the dangers posed to an individual’s privacy by state and non-state actors in the information age.
In this light, in order to harness the benefits of the digital economy and mitigate the harms consequent to it, formulating a data protection law is the need of the hour for India.