Who doesn’t love flaunting what they’ve got on social media these days? After all, a holiday in a fancy resort overseas may not be quite as exciting without online bragging rights, just as the snob appeal of a new and expensive set of wheels would suffer a loss without all those “likes" piled up from far and near. However, these seemingly harmless boasts could now land you in trouble with India’s tax authorities. With a view to improving tax compliance, they have reportedly set the ball rolling on Project Insight, an online surveillance system that uses Artificial Intelligence and data analytics to generate a 360-degree profile of taxpayers. Activated on Monday, it has reportedly been built at a cost of ₹1,000 crore by L&T Infotech and is expected to keep tabs on people’s social media activity for clues and signs of lifestyles disproportionate to their declared sources of income. Be warned: living a life more lavish than what your tax filings justify could be flagged for scrutiny by a piece of software.
India isn’t the only country with people’s financial status under watch. Australia, Belgium and Canada are at the forefront of using data analytics to check tax evasion. However, concerns over this appear to be greater here. This could be because many consider online snooping of any sort a cause for anxiety, given the fear of troll attacks and the like. This scare is compounded by the fact that India has no explicit legal framework to protect the data and privacy of citizens. In Europe, regulators are working on laws that would assure every individual the right to—and control over—his or her data. Users of social media there would thus be able to do whatever they wish with whatever they have put online, even if it’s stored in a database on the other side of the globe. They would have the freedom to wipe their data off memory chips completely, if they so choose; or they could opt to share it with companies strictly on their own terms—in lieu of a fee or shared profits, for example. The right of people to own their information, be it posts, pictures or preferences, could serve as the guiding principle for Indian legislative action along similar lines.
Indeed, it’s creepy to know that somebody is prying on our private lives, but as almost nobody wants to give up the convenience and connectivity of the internet, staying offline is not an option. So long as the state accords itself this privilege in the nation’s interest, citizens will likely have to grin and bear it. Aadhaar as a unique identity marker also evokes worries that it could link every database and serve up an instant e-dossier on anyone packed with every little personal detail in existence on the web, but the argument that it allows the delivery of state services to the truly deserving has kept protests low-key. The hope is that no data leaks into the wrong hands. The same could hold for Project Insight. What’s online is available to the taxman and that’s just the way it is. For now, the most sensible response would be to restrain all exaggeration. Don’t pass off your local beach as Hawaii and don’t portray that bottle of bubbly as something of a rare vintage whisked out of a French castle’s wine cellar. That said, it’s about time the country demanded a proper privacy law.