India is in the process of building the National Social Registry that would allow the government to create detailed profiles of all citizens, and track their activities, raising fears of an Orwellian state.

The new data protection bill, India’s first ever legal framework for personal data protection introduced in December 2019, can do very little to prevent such surveillance, argues a new study by Anirudh Burman, an associate fellow at Carnegie India. Though the bill applies to both private firms and the state, it gives extensive power to the government through exemptions. Citing law and order, national security and other emergencies, the government can exempt practically any state agency from the bill’s purview. This in turn dilutes privacy and citizens’ control over their personal data, the author points out.

Burman argues that the bill in the current form may prove counterproductive. The foundation of the bill is a notice and consent framework which mandates data collectors to collect and process data only with explicit consent from the user.

The users can withdraw consent at any point of time. But Burman questions the very premise that consent agreements protect data privacy. Several studies have pointed out that the majority of users barely read licence agreements of software and applications before giving their consent. A 2011 IBM study showed users spent just six seconds to read the agreement and only 8% read the whole agreement before installing software.

While the bill is on shaky grounds in protecting privacy, it also entails enormous compliance costs for businesses. The technology design requirements, mandatory localization of data storage, and hiring of data protection officers will prove costly for Indian businesses. Small businesses which rely heavily on digital infrastructure for innovation and growth are likely to be hit hardest, the author argues.

Also read: Will India’s Proposed Data Protection Law Protect Privacy and Promote Growth?

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