Identity Project

Aadhaar debate: Privacy is not an elitist concern – it's the only way to secure equality

Aadhaar reflects and reproduces power imbalances and inequalities. Information asymmetries result in the data subject becoming a data object, to be manipulated, misrepresented and policed at will.

If I had a rupee for every time someone tried the “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” argument on me, I could have funded a privacy think tank devoted to debunking it. Few statements have done as much disservice to the construction of privacy in the public imaginary as this. It’s such a tired old trope that even the internet disagrees on its exact origins. Attributed to everyone from Orwell to Goebbels to a character in an 1888 Henry James novel, used in a campaign slogan for CCTV cameras in Britain and abused everywhere, it pervades the surveillance discourse and hijacks the policy debate.

As it turns out, my Centre for the Debunking of Privacy Myths has been rendered unnecessary. By none other than the world’s most famous whistleblower: Edward Snowden. In an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit, days before the proposed renewal of the controversial NSA phone records program, Snowden had this to say:
“Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

With that one sentence, Snowden quietly and masterfully achieved what lawyers, activists, scholars and policy wonks have struggled with for years: a compelling, unassailable response to a dangerous logic that mistakes privacy for secrecy. An argument that puts the burden on those under surveillance to resist it, rather than on the system to justify why it is needed and to implement the checks and balances required to make it proportional, fair, just and humane. An argument that locates privacy at an individual (some would say selfish) level and ignores the collective, societal benefits that it engenders and protects, such as the freedom of speech and association. The “nothing to hide” rhetoric reduces the rich, multifaceted concept of privacy to a crude formulation, one that equates a legitimate desire for space and dignity to something sinister and suspect.

A western idea?

Snowden’s demolition of the argument doesn’t mean our work here is done. There are many other tropes that my (now renamed) Society for the Rejection of Culturally Relativist Excuses could tackle. Those that insist Indians are not private. That privacy is a western liberal construct that has no place whatsoever in Indian culture. That acknowledging privacy interests will stall development. This makes it particularly hard to advance claims of privacy, autonomy and liberty in the context of large e-governance and identity projects like Aadhaar: they earn one the labels of elitist, anti-progress, Luddite, paranoid and, my personal favourite, privacy fascist.

Part of the problem is the difficulty in conceptualising privacy harms: unlike other human rights violations that, through almost cinematic depictions of gore and pain, provoke a visceral sense of wrongdoing, privacy harms are largely invisible. Their injustices and effects are hard to visualise: most users feel little sense of violation about their electronic communications being read or their e-commerce transactions being tracked to profile them. Certainly less than they would feel about civilians being bombed or prisoners being tortured. Their typical response is, “So the government knows my Netflix viewing history, so what?”, or “I can get more targeted ads for stuff I actually want, that’s great, right?”

Brave new world

This makes a good bedfellow for the modernising narrative that casts anything shiny, new and digital as progress, and any attempt to question its risks as profoundly backward. In their fascinating work Flesh Machine, the Critical Art Ensemble described the emergence of a virtual body, which "allows one to create an identity of one's own, with much less restrictions than would apply in the physical world". In a prescient section, they say:
“What did  this allegedly liberated body cost? Payment was taken in the form of a loss of individual sovereignty, not just from those who use the Net, but from all people in technologically saturated societies. With the virtual body came its fascist sibling, the data body – a much more highly developed virtual form, and one that exists in complete service to the corporate and police state. The data body is the total collection of files connected to an individual. The data body has always existed in an immature form since the dawn of civilization. Authority has always kept records on its underlings. Indeed, some of the earliest records that Egyptologists have found are tax records. What brought the data body to maturity is the technological  apparatus. With its immense storage capacity and its mechanisms for quickly ordering and retrieving information, no detail of social life is too insignificant to record and to scrutinize. From the moment we are born and our birth certificate goes online, until the day we die and our death certificate goes online, the trajectory of our individual lives  is recorded in scrupulous detail. Education files, insurance files, tax files, communication files, consumption files, medical files, travel files, criminal files, investment files, files into infinity…

The data body has two primary functions. The first purpose serves the repressive apparatus; the second serves the marketing apparatus. The desire of authoritarian power to make the lives of its subordinates perfectly transparent achieves satisfaction through the data body. Everyone is under permanent surveillance by virtue of their necessary interaction with the marketplace.”

This begins to get at the nub of why privacy matters, especially in the context of Aadhaar. Privacy is breached at several levels; at the time of data collection (especially when biometrics are involved); at the time of its storage by multiple actors (which its federated and decentralised enrollment apparatus facilitates by design); at the time of use (especially when Aadhaar is tagged for banal everyday activities that are low-risk from an identity theft or benefits fraud point of view, risking an allegedly secure system being devalued through ubiquity, and compromised through biometric overuse). All of this is compounded by the lack of a statutory frame for the Unique Identification Authority of India and/or a dedicated privacy law.

When the Attorney General contends, as he did during the ongoing matter before the Supreme Court, and as referenced in Tuesday's order, that there is no privacy violation if the data is not shared, this fails to acknowledge the very complex network of transactions and uses that the scheme is predicated on. When the Supreme Court misses the opportunity to put the brakes on the continued collection of data, it opens the door for the government relying on the Too Big To Fail, Too Late to Turn Back rhetoric.

Data trading

That data is the raw material of the new economy is scarcely in doubt. That data is often collected, used, traded and manipulated is no surprise; whether this is done with or without our consent and knowledge is a different matter. The Attorney General assures the Supreme Court that Aadhaar cards will only be issued on a “consensual basis after informing the public at large about the fact that the preparation of Aadhaar card involving the parting of biometric information of the individual, which shall however not be used for any purpose other than a social benefit schemes”. This statement fails to reassure us on at least three grounds:

a)    Consent to preparation of the card is only part of the picture: even this consent is meaningless if having a card is voluntary but requiring it to access services is, if not mandatory, impossible to opt-out of or resist. Signing up out of fear of exclusion is hardly voluntary when the number’s linkage to a growing list of schemes makes it mandatory by stealth.

b)    Informed consent can only exist when a person is consenting to every intended use, present and future, with clear knowledge of the risks and ramifications. This is clearly not the case, and can never be. Scope creep is a very real and problematic concern.

c)    Even if the authorities behave honourably and refrain from using biometric and demographic information other than for social benefit schemes (an over-broad and undefined term in itself), there are absolutely no guarantees that every actor in the Aadhaar ecosystem can be stopped from so doing. With the data sitting on the servers and systems of so many agents, registrars, third party vendors and other intermediaries within the collection and implementation ecosystem, the Attorney General’s assurance ignores ground realities.

Look who's stalking

Those who argue that the data collected is minimal should remember that even innocuous pieces of data have value in combination. It is the relational quality of data that is key. Aadhaar, if embedded in potentially every government scheme and used in concert with private sector databases, will insert a technological platform between a state and its people that could mediate and track every aspect of our ordinary lived experience. We should worry about the detailed profiles that it helps create, the complex patterns it reveals when combined with other data, however innocuous, and the social sorting that it enables. Not least, because information asymmetries result in the data subject becoming a data object, to be manipulated, misrepresented and policed at will.

And it is this asymmetry that we should care most about because socio-technical systems reflect and reproduce existing power imbalances and inequalities. Access to technology, digital literacy, socioeconomic class, and the lack of availability of alternatives – all these shape our experience of and relationship to technology. That technology is not neutral or objective, that algorithms and technical systems do not see, parse or process all people equally, is increasingly being proven. Whatever one’s views about privacy being a fundamental right or constitutional guarantee, there is no grey area when it comes to equality and equal treatment. And in an instrumental way, privacy helps secure and implement equality: anonymous exam papers are graded without bias and anonymous browsing helps secure equal prices, just as anonymity permits marginalised voices to speak freely and truly explore the marketplace of ideas without fear. So, if you’re not really the privacy fascist type, try “equality fascist” on for size. It’s a one-size-fits-all label we should all be proud to wear.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.