Aadhaar-Privacy Debate Misses One Thing: Personal Data Discipline

The current Aadhaar card and data privacy debate speaks to an important aspect of a landmark government programme to improve public service delivery. The legal and technological framework of Aadhaar, one of the largest biometrics-based identification systems in the world, vis-à-vis privacy, has been the subject of recent discussions.

In fact, debates on the merits of Aadhaar, and whether it improves government programmes and budgets, allows for social and financial inclusion, or promotes citizen-centric governance, still dominate public discourse.

Informing People About Aadhaar

But what is missing in the public debate on Aadhaar and data privacy is the “public.” So far, the government has successfully conveyed to people the importance of signing up for an Aadhaar card. The information campaign has been so effective that nearly every citizen now knows the card to be critical for availing of essential government benefits. Looking ahead, the next step becomes equally important, not only in the context of Aadhaar, but for data privacy in general.Now more than ever, it is vital to educate the public on the importance of personal data, the need to protect it, and to make informed decisions when parting with it.

Parting With Personal Data

In India, the line between public and private information is, at times, unclear. People share personal information easily, not considering it to be sacrosanct.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that most Indians readily part with their personal information when asked to do so.

Ubiquitous demand for personal data – including via private or corporate channels like Google or Facebook – makes it even more important for citizens to be educated on the need to protect personal data. And therefore, it makes it incumbent on the governments to serve as a model of transparency and accountability in handling it.

Raising Awareness About Privacy

Here are two measures to consider and adopt.The time is right for the government and public interest organisations to focus on public education programs on data privacy.Public awareness and education campaigns about the value of personal information, and the importance of protecting it, would go a long way towards placing data privacy issues front and centre in people’s minds.

Basic information on what is personal information, consent, best practices, opt-out options, and sale of personal data would serve as a useful starting point for the vast majority of the public that is not clued into debates of personal data and privacy.

Hold Govt Accountable for Data Leaks

The public also needs to be made aware of the potential next steps once they part with their personal data. Do people realise that they have the right to see their information held by the government? Do they know how to go about accessing it? What can they do if sensitive information is leaked or misused?It is equally important to reach out to schoolchildren and teenagers. Schools would be an ideal setting for a curriculum on data privacy and the related topics of government transparency and accountability.

Educators should speak on how personal information can be misused in various forums, as well as teach students to be more civic-minded in holding officials and governments to account.

Apart from educating those parting with information and data, the officials handling the information should know the implications of dealing with sensitive personal data.As custodians of the data, public servants are intrinsic to any public education push on data privacy. Simple guidelines and training for handling and disclosing personal information would reinforce the view that personal data is held for a specific and lawful purpose, and must be dealt with carefully.


Strengthening Public Services

Coaching them would help prevent mishaps like the involuntary leakage of cricketer MS Dhoni’s Aadhaar card details. Public servants would also benefit from timely reminders on existing guidelines for the release of personal information to contractors, public bodies, and service providers. Such a step would help ensure that they use and disclose data in line with the purpose for which it was collected.

As a developing nation of massive size, India today faces unique imperatives and challenges. We would like to put in place robust public programs and develop broadly at a rapid pace.

But this juncture is also an opportunity to balance pace with mindfulness, take a pause, and plug the knowledge gaps that will arise. In the case of data privacy, increasing public awareness and expertise would go a long way towards strengthening programs like Aadhaar and in turn, bolstering its services to the people.

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