Numbers with Meaning

The UIDAI publishes figures on how many characters are getting added to its database daily, and one of my less technologically challenged friends has worked out how to review those figures (on Twitter: @uidstatus). It makes for interesting reading, watching how many times that ‘mission-critical’ database link goes down, how days go by when it adds nobody (not counting fake IDs, about which the agency hasn’t a clue, apparently, putting it on par with all the other clueless adnumbering exercises that have plagued this country for years), and even the days the actual count goes down, as though people are vanishing like smoke.

Despite the phenomenal budget it operates under, however, there are some things it hasn’t tried to do (apart from counting accurately and thoroughly), and one is to actually ask people how they feel about their privacy being subjected to the worst risks imaginable for people living in a nation that is rapidly moving towards a market economy.

Fortunately, IDRC, the Canadian nation’s fund for developmental activities, decided to fund Privacy International, one of the world’s most active groups in the field of privacy protection, to discover just how much people in Asian countries were aware of the inroads being made into personal privacy through the kind of commercialisation being unleashed through economic ‘reforms’. One of the many projects this eventually broke down into involved research in India.

Attitudes and Awareness: India 2012

How Privacy Matters

We identified Dr Ponnurangam K., a young professor who was just returning to India from the USA, to work at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, to lead the research. While in the USA, as part of his doctoral work, he had visited India in 2004, which is when we met, and done some preliminary research through discussions with people like me (and probably a lot of people who aren’t like me). He set up the PreCog labs at IIITD, working in areas relating to the provision of computer and personal security technologies there.

He began his research by talking to stakeholders, then set up focus group discussions, which elicited the set of questions then exhaustively administered to 10,427 people across the country, the largest, and perhaps the first, such survey ever undertaken. The results came out today, November 23, 2012, and are quite revealing. The actual survey results are available here, a pdf file, but the overview can be found on this page.

Among the interesting findings are the fact that 80% of the respondents reported awareness of identity theft, although large percentages are also cavalier about mobile security and in general also trusting of the government. Recent initiatives such as UID and NATGRID do not seem to raise as much concern as their awareness might indicate, with statements like they must be necessary since the government is executing them.

Curiously, the concerns about privacy revolve strongly about the Internet, with mobile phones and telephony appearing to seem less threatening. However, this concern is centered around markers like passwords, with email IDs, names, dates of birth etc coming across as less recognisable as ‘personally identifiable information’. Physical privacy intrusions such as cameras in public places and so on were low down in terms of raising concern or even awareness. People with generally high awareness of privacy also recognise issues relating to mobile phones, and delete the data on them before selling them in the secondary market.

The awareness of privacy risks on social networks are also low, but people do report concern about photographs, and are wary of having them disseminated through social links. However, the risks of financial transactions leaking PII are known, possibly due to the number of frauds that have attracted publicity in recent years. Yet a significant number of people (15%) think there is no issue with printing the user’s date of birth, name and even phone number in plain text on the card.

Trust in the government’s role extends to reporting comfort with the government’s decision to roll out the security  network interlinking project called NATGRID, or with the issue of personal identity numbers, called Aadhaar. This probably rests to some extent upon the mistaken belief that the country has specific laws protecting privacy, when in fact there is a Constitutional reference that has not been consistently or fully affirmed by successive Supreme Court rulings. Since PK did an earlier study on privacy perception in 2004, one relevant conclusion that can be drawn is that trust in the government is eroding.

Put together, the findings are quite interesting: this government is moving inexorably in a direction that is going to cause people to lose faith in government itself, a serious problem in a country riven with economic disparity and its attendant exclusionary structure.


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Filed under Communication, Community, Democracy, development, governance, Privacy, Security, Self-help, UID

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