Data haze: Towards a digital control raj?
The report on non-personal data governance framework, released recently, seeks to bring clarity to India’s uncharted data privacy space. While this is welcome, the report seems to have raised more questions than it answers. Is not the delineation of non-personal data premature in the absence of a personal data protection bill? Strangely, while the report addresses such issues as ownership of data, data sharing and data trade, it remains rather ambiguous when it comes to basic requirements like the definition of NPD and the identity of its custodians. NPD has been divided into three categories — private, public and community. Public and community NPD, the report says, include “anonymised” data to which “certain data transformation techniques” have been applied so that individuals or specific events are no longer identifiable from them, making the information available to private players. But neither the techniques nor what constitutes a private player — this can mean any sector in the digital economy — is described clearly. Such vagueness leaves scope for private data falling into wrong hands. Further, the report does not specify whether the government or private companies will be the custodians of NPD. This is a significant lapse since data custodians can potentially monetize data. The panel’s suggestions also arm the State with immense powers to define and determine NPD. This does not augur well for a democracy: data is emerging as capital in electoral outcomes. Besides, a digital control raj can also hurt the digital economy.
India is set to become one of the top data consumer markets in the world, generating an estimated mobile data traffic of about 264 exabytes per year by 2025. The primary challenge, therefore, is to balance privacy concerns and make NPD amenable to innovation and business interest. The free movement of data, as opposed to data localization in the hands of corporations or the State, could hold the key. Blanket definitions of the various elements integral to the data ecosystem would not only pose hurdles on the path of digital economic prosperity but also leave citizens vulnerable to manipulation.