From the Viewsroom

The lure of surveillance

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on September 01, 2020 Published on September 01, 2020

RBI’s plan to use big data to track and identity tax defaulters raises privacy concerns

Even though it is a welcome move that the RBI’s Annual Report 2020 acknowledges the power of new computing technologies such as the cloud, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and blockchain, the suggestion to use big data analytics to “track and identify tax defaulters, increase the taxpayer base by tracking their income and wealth parameters” is cause for concern considering the privacy and rights risks involved in such a proposal. It is not very clear from the report whether the RBI wants to do the tracking by itself or expects the Centre to take the reins. The report claims the move is aimed towards boosting fiscal revenues, but global experiences, especially from countries such as China where such tracking systems already exist in various forms, suggest that such moves have the potential to be misused and can cause serious damage to individuals’ privacy.

No doubt, monetary-policy making is a cumbersome process and hence requires the best technologies around. The RBI report shows the Central bank’s Data Science Lab is now using advanced technologies to improve data quality, forecasting, surveillance and early warning detection abilities. The lab also employs big data analytics to provide inputs for policy formulation and monitoring. It is natural for a central bank to leverage emerging technologies that offer immense potential to ease the workload and expedite decision-making. But the application of such technologies must remain at a macro level and extreme caution must be applied while using tracking technologies at the micro level. The Centre has been toying with micro-level monetary surveillance through initiatives such as the Income Tax department’s ‘Project Insight’, which among other things uses algorithmic tools to track individuals’ spending patterns through their social media posts and match them with their declared income to find anomalies.

Tracking technologies powered by big data analytics offer great temptation to authorities across the globe given their potential to transform the surveillance landscape in unimaginable ways. Granted, they make regulation a lot easier. But governments and agencies such as central banks and tax departments must know where the line of control begins and where it ends. Any move to track individual spending through social media must adhere to global best practices such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and must respect the consent of the individuals involved. Also, globally, a heated debate is raging over the racial, gender and class biases of algorithmic tools that are being used by governments and businesses to track and filter various candidates. Hence, it is best advised that such moves should be left open for a public debate before they are made into the law.

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Published on September 01, 2020
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