The Telangana state government has proposed a plan to use voter information to identify new beneficiaries for the Aasara pensions, a welfare scheme of pensions for senior citizens, those with a disability, serious illnesses and for certain communities. This move, however, has once again brought the debate on privacy to the fore, with many fearing that the use of voter data for governance could pave the way for voter profiling, for targetted campaigning by political parties. This concern comes at a time when a large number of voters in Telangana were unable to cast their vote during the recently concluded polls in the state.
Earlier this week, Chief Secretary to the Telangana government SK Joshi, at a meeting with his fellow bureaucrats, had announced that the new beneficiaries to the Aasara pensions can be identified using the electoral data of voters. The new beneficiaries are being added to the scheme as part of the Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao‚Äôs election promise.
After the meeting, Joshi reportedly told the media that electoral rolls data obtained through the Samagra Kutumba Survey (SKS) survey could be used to identify beneficiaries. Various media outlets quoted the official as saying, ‚ÄúThe list of village-wise and district-wise beneficiaries should be sent within three days.‚ÄĚ
The Aasara pension scheme in the state is availed by over 39 lakh persons above the age of 65 and below a certain income threshold. Now, the eligibility criteria for the scheme is being reduced from 60 years to 57 years of age. The state government has also increased the pension amount from Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,016 and is expected to kick in from April 1, 2019.
Incidentally, the officials with the Finance and Pensions Department told TNM that they have not yet received any official intimation from the state government, not even to begin identifying the scheme beneficiaries.
When Aadhaar factor, too, comes into play
A person's voter identity card contains the name of the voter, who the voter is related to, age, sex, address and the photo identity card number. Researchers point out that when the information contained in a voter id card is combined with the Aadhaar data, it gives any state government a profile of the voter.
Picture this: A government knows which voter benefitted through its schemes. Now, what stops this government from reaching out to these beneficiaries to vote them back to power? This is the question, Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher based out of Hyderabad, is asking.
‚ÄúThis kind of usage of state infrastructure to target a set of voters, by analysing their data, is harmful and has no place in a democracy. The usage of voter information in governance will lead to selective bias towards specific groups while ignoring other vulnerable groups,‚ÄĚ said Srinivas, who has petitioned with the Hyderabad High Court seeking transparency in electoral roll purification.
"The government has no business to be in possession of voter ID information in the first place,‚ÄĚ he added.
The State Resident Data Hub (SRDH) of the Telangana government, populated through data from the SKS, contains the voter id, Aadhaar, income, personal details and even geolocation of every Telangana resident. Several reports indicate that Telangana is not alone; many states have already built or are in the process of building their own SRDHs.
‚ÄúVoter profiling using data from SRDHs is possible because the Aadhaar is linked with several schemes a voter is a part of,‚ÄĚ said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation. He pointed out that when the pre-existing details of the Aadhaar demographic database are bundled with the personal details, which are available on the electoral rolls, it leads to a deeper insight into a person.
‚ÄúThe harm is in terms of voter identification, targeting and use of the insight gained beyond subsidy. A form of virtual profiling of a person, if all information known about the person, is linked by one unique identifying feature,‚ÄĚ he added.
So where is the evidence that any state government with an SRDH is profiling a voter?
‚ÄúThis the classic problem in privacy and surveillance arguments, where the tangibility of harm and also the evidence of use is lacking,‚ÄĚ said Apar, who opined that existing regulations focus on data collection and not on data use and disclosure. ‚ÄúIn Telangana, data collection is clear and, when the use of data is not regulated, that by itself gives a need for higher scrutiny and suspicion of data collection. There is no one to enforce the boundary of use of these databases,‚ÄĚ he added.
Will ECI remain a mute spectator?
The Election Commission of India (ECI) responsible for the electoral rolls was once upon a time a mute spectator when the Telangana state government started collecting voter id cards for their survey in 2014. But since then, for the first time, the ECI has come down hard on the Delhi government when they tried to do their own data collection this year.
The Delhi government was collecting Aadhaar, voter id and other personal details of families of school students. Despite the ECI order to end the process, the state government has decided to continue with their data collection.
‚ÄúThe Delhi government has reportedly told the ECI that they can only be stopped if data collection by other state and private actors alike are made ‚Äėinvalid‚Äô. The ECI is correct in saying that the government cannot collect the data. But the Delhi government is also right in demanding that if they are barred, so should other states and private players be barred. The question is, will the ECI issue a notice or ask the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government what they plan to do with the collected voter id data,‚ÄĚ asked Raman Jit Singh Chima, Policy Director, Access Now, an advocacy group dedicated to open and free Internet.
‚ÄúThe ECI does have cybersecurity guidelines, where they say that they will not allow machine-readable versions of the electoral database. This is an admission from the ECI that the electoral roll data in the wrong hands could be misused,‚ÄĚ he added.