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The privacy debate in India gathered force when the government launched the unique identity number scheme in 2009 to store biometric data of the nation’s entire population in a central database. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
The privacy debate in India gathered force when the government launched the unique identity number scheme in 2009 to store biometric data of the nation’s entire population in a central database. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Protecting privacy

The problem arises when personal data is compromised, or sold, by unscrupulous firms to parties that misuse it.

The debates around privacy are not new as companies, governments and consumer forums continuously battle it out to protect their individual interests. When these threats occur in China, Egypt, Iran or Syria, alarm bells seldom ring since they are known to be surveillance countries. But when such cases take place in the US, the UK or India, there is understandably much heartburn.

The UK government, for instance, now wants to give the police and security services additional powers to monitor online activity by having Internet service providers (ISPs) store all details of online communication—including the time, duration, originator and recipient of a communication and the location of the device from which it was made—for a year.

Moreover, the Web browsing history and details of messages sent on social networking sites will also be stored. The police only need a warrant from the home secretary to see the actual content of any messages. Following criticism of the draft, the UK government is revisiting some of those rules.

As an Indian, if this gives you a sense of déjà vu, you’re not mistaken. The privacy debate in the country gathered force when the government launched the unique identity number (UID) scheme in 2009 to store biometric data of the nation’s entire population in a central database. The scheme, known as Aadhaar, is increasingly being linked with public and private delivery services.

Another government project —the National Intelligence Grid —wants to connect the databases of airlines, banks, telecom operators and other private and public sector companies to arm investigative agencies with realtime information. It is slated to become operational in 2013.

Companies, on their part, see economic value in connecting the dots by using data mining tools to ferret out and organize the information available from online users and target these very users with advertisements and products. The problem arises when personal data is compromised, or sold, by unscrupulous firms to parties that misuse it.

The police and other law enforcement agencies have historically tracked communications data. But the need to continue this conversation on privacy will only become more acute with the gradual introduction of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPV6), with which everything from watches, phones and cars to traffic lights will eventually be connected to the Internet, making monitoring that much more easier.

How can privacy be protected in an increasingly connected world?

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