Picture credits: Hindustan Times

[BigDataSur-COVID] COVID-19 and Non-Personal Data in the Indian context: On the Normative Ideal of Public Interest  

Even as activists and ethical technologists have been writing about and working on Personal Data and Privacy, the newer arena of Non-Personal Data (NPD) is very under-explored. What is the role of NPD in the face of a global pandemic like COVID-19? How do we deal with the possible economic exploitation of NPD, without any ethical bindings? This post looks at recent developments in dealing with Non-Personal Data in India, and the possible opportunities it provides in light of COVID-19. It argues for embedding public interest in working with NPD in India, a very urgent mission for activists and ethical technologists.

by Preeti Raghunath

The south-western Indian state of Kerala has been in the news for flattening the curve in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, raising the bar for public health interventions through proactive and informed policy stances. However, another storm was brewing through a few weeks in April and early May, with implications for the larger public health crisis. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala questioned the state government on entering into a contract with a private firm, Sprinklr, which would be granted unhindered access to citizens’ health data. This led to petitions being filed in the Kerala High Court, with the judge pronouncing that the data of COVID patients with Sprinklr be anonymised. A couple of days before this post was written, the Kerala government told the High Court that the data had been transferred to a State-owned cloud space. While this incident, in the midst of a global pandemic, speaks to ongoing discussions on the data privacy and healthcare cybersecurity, it also highlights what is emerging as an important domain in data governance – that of Non-Personal Data.

Defining Non-Personal Data

There is no exacting definition of non-personal data yet in the Indian context, defined as it is by its nature of not being personal data. While the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 is before the Joint Parliamentary Committee, the Indian government has now instituted a panel to examine Non-Personal Data (NPD). Non-personal data is anonymized or pseudonymized data, bereft of the ability to be traced back to an individual. A recent report looked at economic rights in a data-based society. My concern in the remainder of this piece is to examine NPD as a public good, especially in the context of data ownership concerns, COVID-19 and the health sector in general.

Ownership and Public Interest

Non-Personal Data is often misunderstood to be big data alone. It may be part of big data stacks in form, but any kind of anonymized and pseudonymized data could be called NPD. It could exist in the form of big data or thick data, especially in the case of smaller enterprises and local commercial setups. Whatever be the form, NPD has immense value, especially in its potency to be exploited economically. Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher on open data spoke to me about the new National Health Stack in India. He said, “The National Health Stack is essentially a plan by the Indian Big Tech lobby to push monetization of anonymized health data for profit. This often leads to the pushing of technology onto people through coercion.” He tweeted about how the Stack is less concerned with healthcare, and dwells more on technical aspects of the process of registering and signifying the individual into and as data. That Kris Gopalakrishnan, Co-Founder of Infosys, a big Indian technology firm heads the Committee formed by the Indian government, makes it difficult to dismiss concerns of the ownership of NPD and operationalization. That the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 renders the State powerful in allowing the pronouncement of national security as a means to access the private data of the individual, is no solace. In envisaging NPD as an economic asset, one must be wary of the collusion of the State and Big Tech in utilizing them for amassing profits.

COVID-19 and Non-Personal Data

Questions of data ownership and public interest are both normative ideals in any democratic policy process and its practice. In the case of NPD, it becomes imperative to advocate for it to be treated as a public good. The humanitarian concerns of the COVID-19 situation only accentuate and highlight the need to draw on these two ideals. The recent fracas in light of the security concerns of the Aarogya Setu mobile application and the Indian experience of trusting Big Tech with a public data-driven process like Aadhaar, India’s unique identification number system, only make a case for stepping up the advocacy for approaching individual and community data, both of which are non-rival and reusable, as public goods. Aadhaar is a biometric identity system put in place by the government to bring on board citizens. Aarogya Setu is an app that was put in place by the government to deal with medical data and diagnosis to do with COVID-19. Both the technology offerings have come under scathing criticism for evading privacy, relying on identity markers, exhibiting poor security architectures, and in general, being used by the government to control the population.

While writing this blogpost, the Indian government announced that it would be making the Aarogya Setu app open source; it remains to be seen it is a win for those championing privacy and security, once it opens up the source code to ethical technologists. However, this doesn’t take away from the app that it could still be misused. The recent case of the Tablighi jamaat controversy, which saw right-wing forces blaming the Muslim community as a whole for allegedly conspiring to spread COVID-19, is an example of how technology and apps could even be matched and combined to promote profiling of individuals on the basis of religion, caste, and other identity markers.

All this points to the larger practices of data management of NPD, in the face of COVID-19. For instance, practices of open data and sharing of datasets between civil society actors and small technology firms working with them could aid the process of promoting pertinent healthcare facilities, an opportunity that the opening up of the source code of the Aarogya setu app provides. Similarly, data standards need to be tuned in to commonly acceptable principles, since it could accentuate or diminish the complexity of the health situation at hand, just through the outputs that offer results for analyzing such data. Proponents of openness also suggest that research and literature on the pandemic, including scientific ones, need to be shared openly to accelerate finding new pathways to diagnosis and well-being. Next, working with NPD exclusively would mean that segregation and selection of data needs to be enabled, to account for the removal of personal data and associated concerns of privacy erosion. This would require proactive efforts from technologists and those in power to enable such maintenance of data for public usage, since there are efforts by liberal economists to sidetrack privacy concerns during times of the pandemic.

The Indian government must facilitate such processes, to engage with the larger community or activists, advocates, technology experts, innovators, and human rights proponents as well, in public interest. Caution must be shown in ensuring that working with NPD does not boil down to becoming an exercise in technocracy, and is instead an inclusive and open process. This must extend to the policymaking domain as well, with new pathways created for more deliberation. The two members of the panel for NPD, who represent civil society and academia, must work with the larger community of public interest advocates, to push for community and public ownership of data. India’s entrenched migrant crisis that has seen millions walking back home to villages from the cities they work in, and dealing with travel concerns of citizens showcase the fact that COVID-19 only warrants such an act of urgent advocacy in favour of public interest. Rapid datafication of livelihood and socio-economic processes in India would only serve Big Tech and the State, if we lose this opportunity now. 

About the author

Preeti Raghunath is an Assistant Professor at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), Pune, India. She works on global media policy, community media, regional/urban studies, human security, and transitional societies, with a focus on South Asia, using policy ethnography as a methodology. You can find more on her work at www.preetiraghunath.com. She tweets at @preetiraghunath.