The makings of a digital kleptocracy -Reetika Khera

-The Hindu

When data is monetised, as the Economic Survey advocates, it becomes toxic and harms public interest

Last year, I was denied information requested under the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005. I had sought the names of agencies empanelled by the Unique Identification Authority of India for an “image makeover” and the expenditure on it. It was denied by invoking the exemption clauses of Sections 8(d) and 8(j), respectively, i.e. the ‘commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property’ and ‘unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual’. Apart from the recent RTI Amendment Bill, 2019, there are many ways in which the RTI is being undermined.

In 2017, my co-author and I wanted to check what proportion of beneficiaries receive their pensions or rations using data provided through government portals, for example the National Food Security Act and State social security pensions. We found data without dictionaries, abbreviations that were not spelt out anywhere, figures that were inconsistent across different pages of the same website, and missing or broken links. It took us months to decipher public data. With several caveats about interpreting the results.

More recently, there has been public furore over the delay in the release of data, for example farmer suicides, suppression of data such as on employment, bungled migration data in the Census, and controversy over the methodology used to calculate GDP growth rates. These data are the backbone of policy making in India.

These three — information obtained through the RTI Act, administrative data and data collected by the statistical machinery of government — are examples of “data as a public good”. But these are scarcely mentioned in a chapter so-titled in this year’s Economic Survey. Instead, its focus is on the expanding digital footprint of people, falling costs of data generation and storage and the growing data mining industry. The thrust is on how to monetise these data, for example by selling data that we share with the government in trust. Another worrying suggestion is consolidation of our data across various ministries.

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The Hindu, 31 July, 2019,

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