Covid response tech leaves Indians more exposed to data collection: briefing
India’s e-governance has gained traction during the COVID-19 pandemic and mobile phone cash transfer via the country’s biometric Aadhaar has become the main method of welfare and emergency aid distribution, but at what cost to privacy and trust asks Åshild Kolås in a policy brief for the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).
“Indian authorities have engaged in unprecedented collection, sorting, storage and pro- cessing of uniquely identifiable health data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public confidence in India’s e-governance architecture is vital to good citizen-state relations,” finds Kolås.
The National e-Governance Plan, e-Kranti, was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 and has made use of Aadhaar. Despite data leaks, the private sector and government agencies have been equipped to verify digital identity numbers online and welfare has been distributed to linked bank accounts.
One such is the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), which aims to bring low-income, unbanked Indian households into the formal financial sector. Four hundred million such accounts had been opened as of August 2020, notes the brief, with various other benefits paid into them.
When in March 2020 Prime Minister Modi announced an initial stay-at-home order, migrants were shut out from work places and had to head home, despite transport being shut down. This put enormous pressure on the welfare system.
Emergency payments were begun and the Aarogya Setu contact-tracing, infection mapping with geolocation and self-assessment app was launched the following month. It was mandatory for public sector and some private and evolved into a travel and entry pass. It was soon downloaded 120 million times.
It became controversial as updates linked Aarogya Setu to Aadhaar and people became concerned that their data would be shared to the health system, via the new cloud-based National Health Stack. Kolås states that the stack’s developer admitted to such. This has created a new way for the government to monitor public health.
However, it was for individuals to decide whether or not they reported positive results or kept Bluetooth active.
Via her research into the literature through to the post-pandemic era, Kolås arrives at a series of questions as to how well the Indian government and Modi in particular can lead the country through such a situation while protecting the vulnerable and keeping pace with modernization plans.
“How are India’s digital and social divides affected by the growing need to own a smartphone in order to access services when large sections of the population lack these devices?”
“How will Indian citizens’ right to privacy be protected? Who is legally responsible for protecting citizens against identity theft, misuse of data and illegal surveillance?”
Kolås finds that the pandemic “stretched the capacity of India’s e-governance infrastructure, and the fabric of Indian society, accelerating the Indian population’s dependence on the digital infrastructure, mobile networks and ‘smart’ devices.”
IMF execs recently praised Aadhaar’s role in digitalization and welfare delivery and expressed hope it would impress the importance of digital identity on other nations during India’s upcoming presidency of the G20. Meanwhile, Kolås concludes: “Post-pandemic, India’s e-governance integration and extensive data collection allows the Indian government to render individual citizens as bodies of data that can be much more readily known, governed and traced.”