‘First They Came For The Spices, Now They Are Here For Data’


‘First They Came For The Spices, Now They Are Here For Data’
In his book, Vinit Goenka makes a strong case for why India needs to fight data ‘colonisation’ and strive for data supremacy

V Keshavdev

In an increasingly inter-connected digital world, where social media apps have become the store-keeper of our lives, tracking not just our online behaviour but getting a peek into our daily lives, concerns around privacy is but natural. Vinit Goenka, a member of the governing council of CRIS (Centre for Railway Information System), and ex-member of the IT task force in the ministry of road and shipping, brings to fore the challenges and threats posed by lack of data privacy and control. In the book, Data Sovereignty: The Pursuit of Supremacy, Goenka, along with other co-authors, explains the pitfalls of data colonisation by social media and e-commerce giants. The book makes a case for strong laws to ensure control over the ownership of data, which today resides in servers beyond Indian shores. In an interaction with Outlook Business, Goenka explains why the fear over data is not mere paranoia, and why sovereignty over data is critical for India.

With growing paranoia around privacy, your book highlights the fact that India does not have control over data, and that poses a risk. What is the real concern today?

India is one-sixth of the global population and it generates massive amount of data. We are a nation of complex cultures, different religions, with several food habits, purchasing habits, festivals, political affiliations and likings, health issues, educational patterns, besides critical data such as climate, environment, land patterns, defence, financial data and strategic data etc. Today, we are handing over all this data to entities that are storing it in servers located outside of legal and jurisdictional territories of India. Despite being the generators, creators and source of the data, neither do we have control over such data nor is our consent taken to share it with third parties, at times. Many entities holding the data are using it to fuel upcoming technologies such as artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and so on. The irony is that India has not yet taken steps to ensure that this valuable resource remains within our country and those who want to use our data must take our consent, compensate us and honour the Indian judiciary and co-operate with the constitutional provisions. First, there was military colonisation, then came energy colonisation and now its data colonisation. Foreigners came to India for spices long ago and today they have come for data. We can become the next superpower if we control this data.

We are living in a world where entities right from start-ups to big companies have some knowledge about the way we behave. Will that be enough to influence our thinking?

Those who control data can control our mind and influence our behavioural patterns, culture and our future. Today, if we try to look for tickets for a holiday destination, over our mobile or laptop, we start receiving a series of advertisements, recommendations, emails, text messages over the next few hours. This affects our thinking pattern and we invariably end up picking up a holiday even though I might have, probably, not gone at that juncture. This happens even you pay at a salon or grocery stores through credit cards or any other digital method. Predictive analytics of my buying habits is built, and later, I get notifications or messages at frequent intervals. The messages are such that it feels as if someone understands me perfectly. This may lead to a change in my spending habits. The problem here is how do so many third parties get access to my data when I browse a page. Does a common man even understand this? Does a common man give his consent? It’s high time that we understand the threat and take quick steps, so that we are not enslaved.

Your book seems to make a case for a sovereign bill that gives the country the right to access data from every global social media giant. But the US itself doesn’t have such a law. Can that be a reality in India?

That is the need of the hour. Why can’t India be the first country to have absolute control over its data? And why should we always ape the West? Why cannot India lead the world? It is in our own interest that we take these steps immediately as we generate one-fifth of the total global data.  We have maximum mobile penetration right up to the village level. Social media giants such as Google, WhatsApp and Facebook have penetrated into our society, and regional language accessibility has increased the usage of such tools. Digital India is bringing in a big change in our use of mobiles, internet and machines. We have seen a few social media giants admitting that their data has been compromised or that they have shared it with third parties. Since they don’t fall under our legal jurisdiction, we have not been able to make them accountable yet in the way it should ideally be. Hence, it is a wake-up call for India to implement suitable laws to ensure that data of Indian citizens is safe and not misused. Did we ever try to understand why we get to use all the social media platforms free of cost? Are there any free lunches?

Doesn’t the Data Protection Bill 2018 mandate social media giants to localise data? Will they be willing to face such scrutiny?

The Data Protection Bill 2018 is yet to be presented in the Parliament, and it is expected to be discussed on a broader scale soon. I think there is a need to handle the aspect of data localisation specifically in the Bill, as that will ensure the pursuit of supremacy for India. We have to ensure that social media giants must adhere to Indian laws and store data in the country. The Bill must propose that entities operating in India must develop a local data strategy. I personally think, if they want to do business in India, then they must set up offices in the country and have data centres that will store our data within the borders. There is no reason for them to feel discouraged, as we have provided them with a conducive business environment to operate in.

You have mentioned in the book that we will not be in a position to create high value digital products since we don’t have access to the huge data trove that social media giants have. Can you elaborate?

One of the reasons why the valuation of social media companies or e-commerce companies is so high is because they have data of billions of people, mostly from India. Do they have huge physical assets? No. Then, why are they so highly valued, when they don’t charge for their services? What is their revenue mechanism? It is advertisement by sharing data to third parties. This data acts as a fuel for new technologies. It is more valuable than oil and gold. If Indian companies want to access this data stored in servers in other countries, they have to pay a huge price. So, the competitive advantage is lost. Many of these companies operate in India, but they don’t pay taxes here. Recently, a highly valued online shopping company was sold, but the company didn’t pay taxes in India, since the deal was struck in Singapore. So, what is the benefit that India got? The company’s valuation is high because Indians are its biggest customers. But there is no level playing field. The draft E-commerce Bill also is a positive step in this area. It looks at the aspect of ensuring level-playing field for homegrown corporates and start-ups registered in India.

The book also talks about the fear of local data being used by foreign governments against the country. Is the threat a perceived one or a real one?

It is a perceived threat, but I don’t deny that it may be happening. Let me cite an example: a large neighbouring country has funded a digital payments company that is very popular in India. The payment data of every Indian gets stored in that country and can be easily accessed by that country to understand Indian behavior and spending habits. This commercial intelligence can be used by it to boost up production of items most consumed in India and, in turn, pump in their products through exports to our market at competitive rates. This is a very simple example. So, sometimes, unknowingly we may be handing over our data to other entities on a platter.

Can you give us a sense of how cloud computing in the country can emerge as a big job creator?

Cloud computing will definitely add many new jobs in India. We will have control over our data and that will increase our chances of developing data-driven technologies and boost innovation. It will help in the planning of smart cities, smart transport, smart healthcare, and smart agriculture with the use of predictive analytics. We have a flourishing base of software and data analytics companies. Naturally, there will be more opportunities for big data, cognitive, AI and machine-learning technologies. Also, the need for cyber-security experts, cyber law experts and certified consultants will rise. We will also need more physical data centres, which will increase employment of people such as data centre managers, technicians, storage specialists, system administrators and many more. Around 76% of Indian companies have cited the shortage of skilled professionals in these areas. The machine-learning sector alone in India is expected to be worth $16 billion by 2025. Just imagine its cascading effect on the economy. India should not only be the biggest generator, but should also emerge as the biggest hub for data in the world.