(Big) Hopes and Hazards of Big Data

May 15, 2017

Technology is a tool. It can also be a weapon. During a day-long workshop organized by the School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics as part of the JustData project, activists, academics, legal scholars, and data scientists (see list of participants below) debated the impact that one particular type of technology – biometric identification – is having on civil liberties and democratic values, especially in India where the Aadhaar Act became law in 2016.

In her opening remarks, Usha Ramanathan noted that identification technologies are being put in place at a time when those in power are exceptionally corrupt. “Corruption is exploding, but it’s people who are being put under surveillance,” she said. She observed also that there is no legal system in place to deal with the many issues that are being raised by the “datafication of people.”

Ramanathan made several points that were repeated by others during the workshop: that technology is not neutral; that it is not infallible; that it can be controlled by a very few people; and that when it is used by governments, technology can fundamentally alter the relationship between the individual and the state.

On the State, Surveillance and Welfare

 In his presentation, Tudor Sala offered a historical perspective on surveillance noting that it had been a feature of daily life long before the introduction of technology. Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh provided insight on what the UID (unique identification) law means for people living in India today. “It’s a law,” said Dey, “that has meant that everyone’s biometrics are being used not just to identify people, but to authenticate every single action.” Dey and Singh pointed out that one of the problems with this new system is that there is no alternative when it fails, which it does regularly. “There is only a lift, no stairs. If you can’t get on the lift, you’re stuck,” said Dey.

Sowmya Kidambi also spoke about the fallibility of the UID system. She pointed out that the government knew that the system was not reliable, which is why, for example, it had not implemented it for teachers or people who work in hospitals. “This is being done to the poor,” because, she said, “the assumption is that the poor are thieves.”

Kidambi said that one of the results of the UID law was that it increased the distance between the bureaucracy and the people. Wajahat Habibullah agreed while noting that when the law was first proposed, some people argued that it would lead to a closer relationship between the government and the people.

Taha Yasseri reflected on government-society interactions around the world. He said that people were living “on line” these days and that this was changing the nature of politics. He noted that technology facilitated “tiny acts of participation” that can, but rarely do, scale up to huge mobilizations. Technology has also, said Yasseri, made politics more unstable and less predictable.

“Are we the new raw material,” asked Swaminathan Ramanathan. “If so,” he continued, “are we being mined?” He echoed a comment that Usha Ramanathan had made earlier in the day about how regulations had not kept up with technology. Ramanathan also shared some statistics about the reliability of biometric systems like the UID system in India. He noted that although the estimates may not seem significant (a 5% failure to enroll rate, a 3.15% false acceptance rate, a 10.52% false rejection rate), “these statistics represent an enormous number of people” in a country like India with a population of 1.3 billion people.

He spoke also about an issue that others, including Usha Ramanathan, touched on: how technology was making citizens into consumers. “All of us have become customers for this new technology. We are no longer citizens or residents, but customers,” said Usha Ramanathan.

In his remarks reflecting on the first panel, Wajahat Habibullah quoted former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan who spoke about “the great democratizing power of information.” Habibullah said that accountability and transparency were the key to ensuring that data was “just (as opposed to unjust) data.” He also stressed the importance of privacy, which was “impossible when technology is pervasive.” One of the problems in India, he said, is that it does not have a law protecting the right to privacy.

Habibullah said that the databank that was being created in India today was “not an end in itself” and that it could – and should – be used to serve the people better. “It was not intended to make things easier for the government, but to make things easier for people,” said Habibullah. We must, he said, “place people at the center.”

Policy, Practices and Targeting

Decentralization of power and the sovereignty of the people are key to democracy. One of the problems with technology, according to Aruna Roy, is that it leads to the centralization of power. “Governments are amassing power as they talk about decentralization.” Roy went on to say that the Indian government is now using “wrong data” to victimize particular communities.

Ivan Szekely spoke about some of the lessons that developing democracies could learn from “former new democracies” about how to create information rights. He stressed the importance of moving quickly to put protections in place. “Don’t wait until the public understands information rights, technology, and their implications,” he counseled. Ioana Stupariu too stressed the importance of moving quickly – and the inevitability of the changes that were already underway. “We need to get ready for what’s next,” she said.

Several participants spoke about how the growing importance of technology and data had empowered private companies and had led to even greater cooperation between governments and businesses. Amy Brouillette made a presentation about the Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) Corporate Accountability Index that ranked 22 of the world’s most powerful telecommunications, internet, and mobile companies on their commitments and disclosed policies affecting users’ freedom of expression and privacy. “Transparency is the first step to holding companies accountable,” she said.


In reflecting on the day’s discussion, participants disagreed about whether the problems with the UID law could have been anticipated. “It was clear from the beginning that it was not going to work,” said Usha Ramanathan. “Everything that was anticipated has come to pass.” Habibullah disagreed remembering the optimism with which some people welcomed the new law. “The idea was to make it easier for people,” he said.

Dey picked up on the point that Swaminathan Ramanathan had made about the reliability of biometric systems and asked, “What is an acceptable level of rejection or exclusion?” He went on to point out that the UID law was “an easy tool to use to exclude people.” Aruna Roy said that the government was using technology to shed its responsibility to provide social services to the people. She noted that the private companies that are taking its place are not accountable to the people. Technology is being used to shrink political accountability, she said.

Anand Murugesan commented that many of the themes that had been raised during the workshop were the same ones that were being addressed by the JustData project that he and colleagues at CEU were working on. “The conversation will continue,” he said.