The faustian temptations of big data
If August 15, 1947, and January 26, 1950, were independent India’s first two Promethean moments, one freeing us from foreign rule, the other gifting us a democratic republic, August 24, 2017, should, in all fairness, go down in history as its third, for on that blessed day the Supreme Court declared privacy a fundamental right, thereby changing our lives forever in ways it may take us a while to unravel and fathom.
To quote generously from the judgement on which all nine judges of the Constitution Bench put their imprimatur, “Privacy includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. Privacy also connotes a right to be left alone. Privacy safeguards individual autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of his or her life…While the legitimate expectation of privacy may vary from the intimate zone to the private zone and from the private to the public arenas, it is important to underscore that privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place. Privacy attaches to the person since it is an essential facet of the dignity of the human being.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more libertarian credo. Coming at a moment as it does when the government in power is trying to curb, sometimes subtly, but often overtly, certain individual freedoms in the name of questionable public or national good, many see the verdict as a fresh lease of life for civil liberty activists fighting laws that discriminate against minorities such as homosexuals and beef buffs. It also offers a ray of hope to star-crossed lovers who are often hounded for crossing arbitrary Lakshmanrekhas of religion, caste, community, class, race, and even gender.
But perhaps more momentously, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s disclosures on global surveillance, the judgement puts a big question mark on the right of governments and corporations to collect, share, sell and manipulate personal data that may infringe individual privacy and dignity. While it takes care of the conceptual part of the challenge to Aadhaar, namely whether privacy is a fundamental right, a five-judge Constitution Bench will determine whether Aadhaar itself violates privacy later this November.
Nevertheless, without alluding directly to Aadhaar, the judges have expressed their anxieties about the dangers of an Orwellian state riding on Big Data. To quote from the judgement again, “The contemporary age has been aptly regarded as ‘an era of ubiquitous dataveillance, or the systematic monitoring of citizen’s communications or actions through the use of information technology’. It is also an age of ‘big data’ or the collection of data sets. These data sets are capable of being searched; they have linkages with other data sets; and are marked by their exhaustive scope and the permanency of collection. The challenge which big data poses to privacy interests emanate [sic]from state and non-state entities.”
To be sure, Aadhaar, touted as the world’s largest biometric ID undertaking, is Big Data. Under the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, each resident Indian will be branded with a unique 12-digit digital tattoo representing not only regular personal data such as name, address and date of birth, but also, controversially, scans of all the 10 fingers and the iris. All this data is stored in a centralised vault in Manesar, Haryana. As of August 15 this year, the project had issued about 1.171 billion cards at an expense of over Rs 9,000 crore.
It’s quite possible that the Supreme Court may not rule Aadhaar as in breach of the right to privacy. It may try, as some legal minds have suggested, to balance public interest and privacy by instructing the state to enact a robust data protection law. Nevertheless, the government’s almost fanatical apology for Aadhaar, not to mention the fact that it argued against privacy being a fundamental right, suggests an abiding faith in the seductive power of numbers. As anthropologist James Scott documented in his compelling Seeing Like a State, the state has always worshipped data, as it gives more power to the powerful, even if often at the expense of people’s happiness.
Guided by the same instinct, the current craze to quantify almost everything stems from Big Data’s supposed extraordinary power to extract new truths about the world. It is based on the premise that everything in the world can be captured in ciphers of 0 and 1, and that if we could capture enough of it, preferably all of it, we can rummage in it using slick mathematical combs called algorithms and pull out non-obvious insights into practically every problem on earth—how to stop a terrorist, catch a tax cheat, prevent train accidents, predict and tackle extreme weather events.
Such is its seduction that all the world’s political and business elites with privileged access to it—multinationals, IT giants, the G20 group, World Bank and the UN, to name the top few—are paying handsome obeisance to it. Aadhaar is a perfect example. They obviously believe it holds promise (of more power and more profit, to be precise). But it is being sold to us as a magic wand that will add the prefix smart to everything—smart cities, smart devices, smart babies, smart humans, smart nature. As Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schönberger inform us in their almost gushing Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, “the benefits to society will be myriad, as big data becomes part of the solution to pressing global problems like addressing climate change, eradicating disease, and fostering good governance and economic development.”
On the other hand, in the light of Snowden’s revelations, many critics see in the rise of Big Data the germs of a “new mind control”. For some others like Shoshana Zuboff of the Harvard Business School, Big Data, together with artificial intelligence (AI), represents a massive disruptive engineering of the human soul with ominous and as yet unclear implications for notions of freedom, privacy, justice, moral reasoning and autonomy.
But what really is Big Data and how is it different from older forms of data that we thought were huge, census data, for example? What explains its lure, not to mention its wickedness?