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Opinion | In 2019, a digital India can be made a safer India

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As India gets digitised, there is an urgent need for it to be made digitally safe as well. In this regard, some of the developments in 2018 need to be analysed and modified in 2019

The Government of India launched Digital India to ensure its services reach all citizens in a quicker and more efficient way. It aims to do this through improved online infrastructure and by increasing Internet connectivity. The initiative includes plans to connect rural areas with high-speed Internet, with the development of secure and stable digital infrastructure. The year 2018 saw various steps taken, both by the government and private sector, in this direction, and, 2019 will most likely see a continuation of this focus.

In addition of the government plans and initiatives, the private sector is on the job. Reliance Jio’s data services-led mobile operations acquiring 100 million subscribers in less than six months of its launch, and Google’s Wi-Fi project in railways stations that has serviced more than 175 million unique users are good examples of the pent-up demand for digital technologies and services. It also shows the ability of the private sector to cater to that demand.

India’s Internet subscriber base has grown rapidly in the recent years to reach close to 500 million, from 84 million in 2012. This is expected to cross 850 million by 2025, surpassing the combined population of the G7 group of countries. India consumed 22 percent of world’s mobile data between April and June and mobile telecom operators in India handled more data traffic than their Chinese and US counterparts put together. This is the true-blue digitisation of India.

While this expansion of Digital India is set to continue in 2019, there is another side of the story that needs to be discussed.

The widespread adoption and usage of digital technologies and services leads to generation of various data attributes for every user that can be collated and processed. This, in turn, leads to improved and differentiated offerings by various business entities, along with generating new business models.

Digital technologies, such as Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, can generate tremendous value out of individual consumer attributes. However, like all technologies, these too can go overboard and turn disastrous if not contained within certain boundaries. We have witnessed multiple examples of data breaches, leaks, hostile access and manipulations across the world, including in India.

As India gets digitised, there is an urgent need for it to be made digitally safe as well. In this regard, some of the developments in 2018 need to be analysed and modified in 2019. Five of them are:

    1. Make the Data Protection Bill 2018 a law: In July 2018, a 10-member expert committee led by Justice BN Srikrishna developed the draft version of Data Protection Bill 2018. This Bill is a great start in the right direction towards data privacy and regulation. It’s in line with Europe’s GDPR, and it goes on to charter a well thought-out framework, covering exhaustive touch points. In 2019, the Bill must become a law, with a provision for upgrade and amendment.
    1. Spread awareness about data privacy, protection, rights and consent: An average citizen is fairly undereducated on all the forms and potential use of the data that is accessible to companies and businesses. The draft Data Protection Bill 2018 makes “Data privacy a fundamental right of every citizen”. As empowering as this is, there is an urgent need for adequately educating, at a mass level, the average users on the need for data privacy, protection, their rights and consent scenarios and withdrawal mechanisms.
    1. Data localisation: Many national governments have implemented or are in the process of implementing data localisation laws, including the top four populous countries — China, India, the US and Indonesia. In a scenario where collation, quantum and processing of an individual’s data is being sought by almost every company, the State needs to take the responsibility for securing the data of its citizens. Rightly so, local hosting and processing of such data is a step in the direction for data privacy and regulation.
    1. Neutralise confusion over multiple policies, agencies: Recently, four key pronouncements (in quick succession) were made for data localisation alone, including recommendations by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), by the Justice BN Srikrishna, the draft e-commerce policy, and the draft report of the cloud policy panel. Multiple government agencies are driving various aspects of recommendations and regulations. Some of these are overlapping, over-reaching and competing. This confusion needs to be neutralised and a centralised authority needs to be established.
    1. Leave room for improvement: The science, techniques and technologies of accessing and deriving value from various data attributes and the associated breaches and leaks are still in evolutionary phase. In such a scenario, policies, regulations and frameworks that are developed to protect the data need to be continually updated and fine-tuned to keep in line with the evolution of technologies.

The year ahead poses several challenges on the digital front, but, when compared to the advancements and possibilities it offers these challenges are minor.

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