Data Societies 2020: Demanding Accountability and Transparency from the State

A series of panel discussions titled Data Societies, organised by Economic and Political Weekly and the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, was held in Mumbai on 7 February 2020. This article summarises a few key points from the second panel discussion.

Panel II: The Data State commenced with Vidya Subramanian, a postdoctoral fellow at the Indian Institutes of Technology, Bombay and the chair for this discussion, introducing the concept of “surveillance capitalism.”

Listen to the panel:

Panelist Srinivas Kodali, an independent researcher on technology and society, spoke about the Indian Information Technology sector’s role in enabling the state. He raised questions regarding how much the state can be trusted with data. Panelist Sakina Dhorajiwala, associated with LibTech India, provided the welfare perspective on data. She spoke about the high rates of participation in the government’s data collection initiatives from economically marginalised sections of society. “For them, this is the only possible way to access the welfare schemes of the government,” she added. Arguing for civil society’s focus to be directed towards ensuring accountability for errors in data handling by the government, she said: “With the multiplicity of agencies, the buck keeps getting passed around. The state is taken further away from the citizens.”
The third panelist, Aasim Khan, assistant professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology Delhi, spoke about the need to think of data more “conceptually and historically.” He called the first population census in India under the colonial administration a “ghost that continues to haunt us.” According to him, the slogan Hum Kaagaz Nahi Dikhayenge (We shall not show our papers) raised in protests against CAA (Citizenship [Amendment] Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens) is a response to that process.
After their initial statements, Subramanian asked the panelists: “Can we demand that the government delete all our stored data?” In response, Khan spoke about how little this would achieve since multiple agencies store data on various “mirror sites.” Sakina Dhorajiwala spoke about the instance of “inactive” Aadhar cards from Jharkhand that led to the stalling of workers’ payments. Citing Indian Railways as an example for giving people more choices, she said: “They continued to maintain physical counters even after the launch of online ticket booking services. People should have options.”
At one point, Srinivas was interrupted by Sakina when he was trying to explain what ‘inactive’ Aadhar means. She said she knew what it meant. Subramanian, addressing her, said: “Thanks for doing that. It happens a lot.” Srinivas clarified that he did not mean to “mansplain” even as members of the audience laughed. Responding to the discussion on “automating” governance, Subramanian reflected on the “democratic project.” She said, “The purpose of democracy was to de-automate governance.”
Both Khan and Kodali spoke about the need to engage “the common man” in conversations on data through politics. Khan quoted author Arundhati Roy while talking about the “middle class’ secession” from politics. Srinivas spoke about how limited the academia’s role was in involving the masses in these discussions. He said: “The language for this will come from the people. This is what we have witnessed in the CAA-NRC protests.” While discussing the ubiquity of surveillance systems, Subramanian complained that the brain was the only private space left for individuals. In response to this, Khan quipped: “Actually, China has developed something for that too.”
Malvika, an audience member, asked how one could engage with the “Savarna State” to ensure that “the marginalised are not reduced to mere data.” Subramanian responded by saying, “Unfortunately, the marginalised are not even being reduced to data. They have been rendered invisible.” She described this as the biggest failure of the attempt to digitalise administration.
Kodali spoke about how Aadhar, which was meant to be voluntary at first, was transforming “citizens into consumers” by allowing private corporations to access people’s personal data. Citing the Supreme Court Judgment on the right to privacy, Kodali pointed out that citizens have a right to know how their data is being used. He added: “The state can’t let go of its responsibility in the name of national security.”
While talking about corporations providing free services in exchange for personal data, Khan said: “If you are buying something, you are a consumer. If you are buying something for free, then you are the product.” Subramanian was sceptical about the prospects of setting up another regulatory authority to handle concerns regarding data. When asked about this, she said, “A regulator is only as good as you let it be. My fear is that another regulator will only become open to manipulation by the authorities in power.”
Towards the end of the discussion, Khan invoked the speech delivered earlier during the day by Gopal Guru, editor of Economic & Political Weekly. Speaking about the importance of governing and not only regulating, Khan said: “We don’t need laws alone. We need public commissions that talk about truth. We need truth commissions.”

The audio used in the podcast was recorded by Prakriti Singh and Sreya Roy Chowdhury. They are both MA students of media and cultural studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. The background track used is titled "FunkyVibes."

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