We need public debate on the use of new technologies: Data privacy experts

The Internet Freedom Foundation hosted a panel discussion on ‘Does Privacy Have a Future in India?’ with the participation of Usha Ramanathan, a human rights activist, and Aakar Patel, president of Amnesty International.

The debate about data privacy in India, or rather the lack of it, has largely revolved around the role of the government. Privacy law expert and human rights activist Usha Ramanathan noted: “Technology is a collaborator that allows the government to keep people in control. If the technology does not collaborate with the state, the state cannot do this.” He was speaking in a panel discussion on ‘Is there a future for privacy in India?’ organized by the digital freedoms organization Internet Freedom Foundation in Bangalore on Saturday 27th August.

Usha said the argument that rules stifle innovation and rules must be built around innovation is hugely problematic. “This is being done at the price of people’s freedom and that is not right. As long as the technology was benign, it was fine, but it’s no longer benign. The data ambitions and the ambitions of collaboration with the state, which is what we are seeing now, are not acceptable,” he argued.

The activist suggested a moratorium and public debate on the use of any new technology that could violate people’s rights or could be used for surveillance. “Facial recognition technology cannot be implemented. A moratorium does not have to be 10 or 15 years. But there has to be enough time for people to know what it is,” he said.

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

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Speaking about the legal battle for the right to privacy, Usha recalled that during the KS Puttaswamy case, the government told the Supreme Court that citizens have no right to privacy. “Maybe we wouldn’t have put up a strong fight for privacy if the state hadn’t said you don’t have rights. It is the job of the state to protect and promote our rights,” he said, adding, “It takes time for people to understand what a right is. Unlike some of the other rights that are in the Constitution like freedom of expression, the right to privacy is not like that. We are discovering that we have to work for it. We get a sentence from a court so that we can promote our rights.”

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

See the IFF discussion board:

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