Centre for Internet & Society

Finding a way to protect privacy is critical, with the Supreme Court hearing petitions challenging the mandatory linking of Aadhaar to avail various social and welfare benefits.

The article by Deepti Govind was published in Livemint on December 11, 2017

Using the concept of de-identification to protect an individual’s right to privacy and creating laws that constantly re-evaluates the difference between harmful and good use of data is crucial for India, according to an expert panel on data privacy.

That could mean developing a token system that lets the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) hold a master-list of data through Aadhaar, while generating token numbers for all other Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements, suggested the panel at the Global Technology Summit hosted by think-tank Carnegie India.

“If we can implement de-identification principles in government collection and storage of data, even if that data is displayed on the website it cannot be correlated to an individual. And if it can’t be correlated to an individual then immediately that data is not as dangerous as it could be,” said Rahul Matthan, partner at Trilegal and a Mint columnist.

In theory, de-identification could include anything from deleting or masking personal identifiers, like names, to generalizing or suppressing others, like an individual’s pin code.

Finding a way to protect privacy is critical for India, with the Supreme Court hearing petitions challenging the mandatory linking of Aadhaar to avail various social and welfare benefits.

One of the grounds for challenge is that the use of biometric information of an individual encroaches upon the individual’s privacy.

The Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based research organisation, proposed that the UIDAI use tokens for KYC requirements. Under this method an individual can use a smart card and a personal identification number (PIN), rather than biometrics, at a UIDAI-controlled booth and generate a token number. That token number can be submitted to a telephone operator or a bank.

“UIDAI is currently considering this. They call it the dummy or virtual Aadhaar numbers. Under this a single agency cannot pull off the surveillance completely by themselves. So there is both a technical and institutional check,” said Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society.

Another method could be shifting the emphasis to revoking consent rather than grant of consent to collect and store data.

This could be done using the same method that currently exists to filter unwanted calls and messages on phones via the do-not-disturb registry. But over and above these, creating the right regulatory framework is important.

“It has become absolutely necessary to have in place a law which governs the usage of misuse of data,” said former Supreme Court justice B.N. Srikrishna.

Srikrishna used to head a 10-member committee of experts constituted by the government to study various issues related to data protection, make specific suggestions on the principles to be considered and suggest a draft data protection bill.

The data protection law must balance the interests of all three stakeholders—the common citizens, data collectors and the state—and not focus on just one or two, Srikrishna said on Friday. There should also be methods in place to penalize or impose fines on companies or agencies in case of data breaches or misuses, he added. But imposing fines is not the ideal solution, according to experts.

“It’s really critical that we think about building in incentives to do better. If every violation results in a huge penalty, for instance, then the posture of companies will be a secretive, protective, legal defence posture rather than one that strives to constantly improve practices and technologies,” said Facebook Inc.’s global deputy chief privacy officer, Stephen Deadman.