It is clear now that the Centre has dropped all arguments for “public good” when it comes to mass surveillance measures. Two recent developments illustrate this. A report by the Indian Express said the government had been asking telecommunication companies for the call data records of all users in certain pockets of the country on certain days. Another investigative series by the HuffPost India shows how the Centre is planning a National Social Registry, a “360 degree database” to track the lives of all Indians.
Neither measure seems to be backed by law or follow due process. As the government pushed forward with them in stealth, it dispensed with the usual justifications for mass surveillance that violates privacy guidelines set down by the Supreme Court – national security or the targeted delivery of goods and services.
Mass requests for call data records were sought in January and February. In a letter to the telecom department, mobile service providers noted that no reason had been offered for requesting such great amounts of data. They also violate the procedure for call requests laid down in 2013, after a snooping scandal shook the government.
The social registry seems to have flowed from a project to update the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census. An exercise to create a database that was updated in real time so that pro-poor government schemes reached the right beneficiaries seems to have mutated into the stuff of science fiction. It will be “an all-encompassing, auto-updating, searchable database to track every aspect of the lives of each of India’s over 1.2 billion residents”, says the report.
It dispenses with the anonymity that enumerating exercises like the Census must adhere to. Aadhaar numbers will be used to integrate information on religion,caste, income, property, marital status, education, family. In order to enable this, the Unique Identification Authority of India proposes to tweak the Aadhaar rules. That would effectively nullify the privacy safeguards put in by the 2018 Supreme Court judgment.
Both measures – the request for call data records and the creation of a social registry – seem to intersect with the government’s citizenship project. The call data requests were made during the two months that protests against the new Citizenship Amendment Act and a proposed National Register of Citizens raged across the country. The protests had stemmed from the fact that the law and the register projected an exclusionary idea of Indian citizenship, that they could be used to harass minorities that the state did not favour. The government has since back-pedalled on its vow to compile the NRC, the stated aim of which was to weed out so-called infiltrators or foreigners from the citizenry. But the social registry raises fears that the government may use the data to construct categories of citizens and non-citizens.
The two latest developments add to a growing body of evidence that India is following the trajectory of a surveillance state. First, data collection for surveillance is legitimised by an acceptable public goal. Second, the encroachment of the state into private lives is routinised and insidious, so people do not even notice it. Finally, when the state has enough data, it uses the minutiae to discriminate against or coerce specific individuals or groups – those who dissent, for instance, or those who do not fit the government’s template for a good citizen. It is a truism that needs to be repeated: such a state does not exist for the welfare of its citizens but for the exercise of its own power.