We need public debate on use of new technologies: Experts on data privacy

Internet Freedom Foundation hosted a panel discussion on ‘Does privacy have a future in India’ with Usha Ramanathan, a human rights activist, and Aakar Patel, Chair of Amnesty International, participating.
Aakar Patel (left) and Usha Ramanathan (centre) at Internet Freedom Foundation panel discussion on privacy in Bengaluru
Aakar Patel (left) and Usha Ramanathan (centre) at Internet Freedom Foundation panel discussion on privacy in Bengaluru
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The debate around data privacy in India, or rather the lack thereof, has largely revolved around the role of the government. Privacy law expert and human rights activist Usha Ramanathan pointed out, “Technology is a collaborator that lets the government keep people in control. If technology doesn’t collaborate with the state, the state can’t do this.” She was speaking at a panel discussion on ‘Does privacy have a future in India?’ hosted by digital liberties organisation Internet Freedom Foundation in Bengaluru on Saturday, August 27.

Usha said that the argument that innovation is stifled by rules and that rules should be built around innovation is hugely problematic. “This is being done at the price of people’s liberty and that is not okay. So long as technology was benign it was okay, but it’s no longer benign. The ambitions on data, and the ambitions of collaboration with the state, which is what we are seeing now, is not acceptable,” she argued.

The activist suggested a moratorium and a public debate on the use of any new technology that is likely to violate people’s rights or likely to be used for surveillance. “You can’t have facial recognition technology being rolled out. A moratorium doesn’t have to be for 10 or 15 years. But there has to be enough time for people to know what it is,” she said.

Aakar Patel, Chair of Amnesty International India, who was also a part of the discussion, noted that people wrongly assume that the state is inert and benign, that it doesn’t want to do anything with your data. “The RSS panna pramukh gets a list of the beneficiaries of various government schemes like Ujwala. The pramukh is told to knock on their doors and come out and vote. This information is passed on to them without any resistance from the bureaucracy or the Election Commission,” he said.

Speaking about the legal battle for the right to privacy, Usha recalled that during the KS Puttaswamy case, the government had told the Supreme Court that citizens don’t have the right to privacy. “Maybe we wouldn’t have put up a spirited battle on privacy if the state didn’t say you don’t have rights. It is the job of the state to protect and further our rights,” she said, adding, “It takes time for people to understand what a right is. Unlike some of the other rights which are in the Constitution like freedom of expression, the right to privacy is not like that. We are finding out that we have to work for it. We get a judgment from a court so we can further our rights.”

She said there is hope, citing a recent report that over 90% of citizens in Chennai had not linked their Aadhaar with their voter ID.

Watch IFF’s panel discussion:

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