The Narendra Modi government claims that 99% of Indians above the age of 18 now have Aadhaar. Let’s accept this claim at face value. It means there is still 1% of the population that has not enrolled for the 12-digit unique identity number. I am one of them.
There are thousands of people like me who are resisting getting Aadhaar for various reasons. A key reason is the crippling fear that it violates our right to privacy and the confidentiality of our personal information. The fear is deepening as more and more “leaks” show that private corporate entities are freely accessing the Aadhaar data to create their own databases, which are not secured.
Why are corporates so interested in mining Aadhaar data? For one, as the chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages Aadhaar, said in a recent interview, Aadhaar can be used to create a “360-degree profile” of any individual. A top Indian industrialist went further, recently stating that “data is the new oil” that will lead the world into the fourth industrial revolution.
Clearly, India is a rich ground to harvest this new resource and profit heavily from. After all, this country is home to a seventh of humanity.
The industrialist’s words got me thinking. If data is indeed a resource like oil, should there not be a price to it?
The Supreme Court is now sitting to decide whether Indians have the right to privacy and whether Aadhaar violates that right. I doubt the court will give a clear judgement securing citizens’ personal data. It has not shown a conviction in recent years to deal with legal infractions. In any case, it is too late to hope the entire Aadhaar programme will be trashed.
Since we the citizens do not have the right to privacy – as the Modi government is arguing in the Supreme Court – and our data is anyway being used for profiling and profiteering, we should take the next step: we should declare everyone of us a commodity and demand a price from those interested in using us.
This is not unreasonable. If my data has monetary value for the state and private players, why should I not benefit from it? If it is the new oil and it is extracted from me, why should I not be paid for providing the resource?
Supporters of Aadhaar argue that if Facebook and Google take our data, why shouldn’t the Unique Identity Authority of India? The easy counter is that Aadhaar is not a private company and unlike Google and Facebook, it does not give me a choice of joining or not. Also, I can sign out of Google or Facebook, but not from Aadhaar.
The argument that I should be paid for my data, therefore, stands. And it holds fantastic possibilities: if a citizen’s personal data is a commodity that can be bought and sold like detergent or a pair of jeans, she can reasonably expect to benefit financially from any transactions involving her data.
Let’s talk money
Private contractors tasked with enrolling people for Aadhaar should buy the data at a price. They should pay a flat amount upfront to the person who is enrolling. I would suggest Rs 5 lakh for lifetime access to the data. Since morality, conviction and personal liberty matter little in the brave new world India is supposedly stepping into, I don’t think anyone would have a problem selling their soul for this amount.
If Rs 5 lakh is too much, then simply introduce Universal Basic Income through Aadhaar. According to the Economic Survey of 2016-17, Universal Basic Income of Rs 12,000 per person per year would be optimal. If the government starts this program, it can gradually get rid of all other targeted welfare schemes. Aadhaar has anyway become an impediment in accessing social welfare schemes for a lot of people. By introducing a Universal Basic Income, the government can get rid of the social welfare net in one fell swoop instead of destroying it piecemeal.
Going up the chain, the Unique Identification Authority should reimburse the private contractor for the expenses incurred on enrolling a person. The authority itself can become a for-profit entity, buying and selling citizens’ data to whosoever wants it and transferring the money directly into the bank account of the person whose data is sold. Suppose a school asks for the data of a child for admission, the parent would get an alert on their phone: “School is requesting access to your child’s data. The price of data exchange is Rs 100 which will be credited to your bank account. This data will be used for maintaining a student database and attendance purposes. Do you accept?” If the parent agrees to the price, their child’s data will be shared by the Unique Identification Authority with the school.
Every transaction of data would be for a price, depending on the value the authority assigns it. Google currently earns $277 per unique user per month and Facebook $60. In return, they provide the user a host of free services, from maps to email to social media – unlike Aadhaar at present. A similar value can be assigned to every transaction of personal data facilitated by the authority. All contracts signed between the identification authority and private entities would be made public. This way, data would truly become the new oil.
Get over it, naysayers
Of course, many among us would feel incredulous and squeamish at the thought of monetising data in this manner. Well, our grandparents would never have imagined that water would one day be bottled and priced. It happened. The future is always full of possibilities.
We are routinely told that our personal data is safe with the Unique Identification Authority and there is no way it can be misused by government for surveillance and curbing dissent. If that is really the case, then I propose political parties should be allowed to buy this data if they want to use it for targeted campaigning. However, each voter whose data is used should be paid for it.
The discourse on Aadhaar is extremely polarised. While the government keeps making up stories about its benefits, the critics say it does more harm than good. The critics, myself included, need to evolve and ask the government to simply be open about the uses of Aadhaar data – make it transparent and incentivise people to give up their rights. Tell us citizens, whose fields you are extracting this new oil from, where you intend to sell it and give us a share of your huge profits. If we are being treated as commodities now, tell us that to our face. We may be willing to get used to the idea.
The river of Aadhaar data is flowing into an ocean of profit for government and private entities. We the citizens need to draw out a canal from it to irrigate our farms. Why should they have all the fun?
Tathagata Satpathy is a Lok Sabha MP from the Biju Janata Dal.
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