Data flows and our national security interests

Subimal Bhattacharjee | Updated on September 26, 2019 Published on September 26, 2019

India offers free play to digital giants in the domestic space. It needs localisation safeguards

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his historic ‘Howdy Modi’ rally in Houston this week has referred to ‘data’ as the new oil and the new gold. Indeed, the transformative potential of Digital India is becoming increasingly evident. India is a destination for artificial intelligence pursuits, with the availability of quality skilled resources.

However, there was also a larger message that the PM has given to the global community, in the context of data negotiations in strategic, trade and civilian arenas. The global community, grappling with issues of cyberspace and digital economy, is confronted with the issue of data management and its movement.

India has also been dealing with the issue both within and outside in bilateral, multilateral and multi-stakeholder engagements. Public positions have also been steadily building up ever since the expert committee on personal data led by Justice BN Srikrishna submitted its report to the government in July last year.

Just a week back, while in New Delhi, Nick Clegg, currently vice-president with Facebook and UK’s former deputy prime minister, had remarked in two public engagements about how data was rather like water and not oil. This argument was purely on the premise of trying to show how data and its concomitant ecosystem should be left to flow everywhere, and not localised. His argument reiterates what Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon (GAFA), and in turn the US, have been pushing through trade negotiations — removing India’s data localisation requirements in its digital legislation and regulations.

India by far has been one of the most mature countries in its diplomacy on digital issues. It has allowed a free and unfettered internet regime in the country. Digital proliferation across the country has given a very open platform to the GAFA giants. Indian social media community is the most prolific in all the above four platforms and the WhatsApp platform of Facebook today has the largest active user-base in the whole world. Google is the go-to for every answer. Their influence on Indian digital habits is phenomenal, more so with artificial intelligence.

The vibrancy of the Indian internet user community is always an enticing proposition. So investing in a data ecosystem and residing the data in the country would make commercial sense for all these platforms.

Even server space optimisation and threshold hasn’t been attained as more and more people are still to be connected and data size is growing. Likewise, security of data and the data ecosystem consisting of the infrastructure and usage practices has never been a concern in India.

Abiding by agreements

For more than two decades, despite the absence of a specific data protection law, Indian companies serving Fortune 500 companies in great numbers, often on sensitive personal information, have always respected the service level agreements (SLAs) that they signed.

This track record on SLAs has supported the Indian information technology industry to grow every year quite handsomely where the most important component was still the data. Even the most sensitive unique identity network, Aadhaar, the one of its kind and largest in the world, is an example of how data-related infrastructure and processes are followed in the country. Even the provisions of the Information Technology Act 2008 have stringent clauses to deal with data breaches. A specific data protection law is in the works. On the other side, there have been situations where requests for data and specific information have been delayed or made partially available by these same entities on one pretext or the other. The situation has improved in the last few years as law enforcement requests are being taken seriously.

From national security considerations, locating specific data within the country such as that related to financial information, is the right thing to do. Internet related engagements at almost all levels have been on a multi-stakeholder-based approach and so should be related to data storage and movement.

The OECD deliberations on digital economy should take a considered view on data localisation and cyber cooperation, taking into account trade and commerce facilitation and security perspectives. Prime Minister Modi has enhanced the debate on data and its journey to a more engaging level.

The writer is a former country head of a defence multinational

Published on September 26, 2019

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