Nilekani warns against data concentration in few hands

Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, the first head of the Unique Identification Authority of India that generates the now ubiquitous Aadhar numbers, has warned that the consolidation of user data on a few digital aggregators could put the country under a new model of colonisation, and argued for a new privacy policy that gives users control over the data.

''Increasing the aggregation of that data in a few concentrated platforms of aggregators is actually quite a big risk; you end up with data monopoly. The problem with a data-based approach is that the more data you have and better machine learning you apply, the more customers you get,'' Nilekani said at an interaction with D J Patil, the chief data scientist for former US president Barack Obama.

With smartphones spurring a data explosion, Nilekani said aggregation of data in a few concentrated platforms or aggregators is a big risk. ''A big part of public policy all over the world is going to be how we enforce a policy regime where data is open, shared and portable. The data is yours and you have the right to get it back. In India, we don't have anything like a policy yet,'' Nilekani said.

''So, we can think of a fresh policy that would be leapfrogging. I am deeply concerned that data are going to create a new set of monopolists; it is going to create a whole new model of colonisation.''

Unlike China, which gave preference to local firms, which now dominate the local internet market, India remains the world's largest open market for global internet companies.

US internet firms such as Google and social network Facebook dominate India's internet market. Both firms are also investing heavily in building rural networks in India, making their platform the first choice of users to get the network effect - the more users these firms get, the better their platform network gets. These firms offer free services in exchange for data that help them target users with advertisements.

''A big part of public policy all over the world will be how we enforce a policy regime where data are portable, shared and yours. We do not have anything like that in India.

Nilekani's comments come ahead of a crucial hearing by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court today, which will answer concerns on whether privacy in India is a fundamental human right and part of the basic structure of the Constitution. The court will hear a series of petitions arguing that the Aadhaar programme, which mandates individuals share biometric details, is a violation of citizens' right to privacy.