This is Part 3 of a three-part series on the Modi government’s plans to build a tracking database for every Indian. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.
HYDERABAD — The Telangana state government offered to help the Modi government build an intrusive, searchable system to build and track 360-degree profiles of India’s 1.2 billion residents without having to rely on Aadhaar, documents reviewed by HuffPost India establish.
On October 19, 2018, Jayesh Ranjan, Telangana’s Principal Secretary of Department of Information Technology, Electronics and Communications, told his counterpart Ajay Prakash Sawhney, Secretary at the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, that Telangana had already implemented such a system that live-tracked 30 million residents in the state, and was happy to help the Union government scale it into a system that could profile and track lives of each of India’s over 1.2 billion residents.
Telangana’s offer was extended barely three weeks after the Indian Supreme Court had upheld the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, but significantly curtailed its use for applications that infringed upon the privacy of citizens.
“In view of the recent decision of Hon’ble SC on Aadhaar, there is an immediate need to look for solutions which uses 360-degree view without dependence on Aadhaar,” Ranjan wrote in his email, a copy of which was accessed by HuffPost India through the Right To Information Act . “Telangana has initiated a project called Samagram about 2 and half years ago which is a Smart Governance Platform for multiple governance objectives through record linkages across very large datasets without depending on any unique ID.”
This correspondent has witnessed the Telangana system at work, and can confirm that senior bureaucrats and law enforcement officials in the state have instantaneous access to granular details about every resident, and can even build family networks by crunching vast amounts of government data at a time. While the existence of the Telangana database has been previously reported, this is the first account of just how intrusive this system is.
Telangana, Ranjan wrote in his email, “will be very happy to offer this solution to other states as well as many departments of the Government of India. We can come over to Delhi for a presentation to you.”
The Telangana application, called Samagram, offers a working prototype for the Modi government’s ambitious and controversial Social Registry — proving that big-data surveillance is no pipe dream, but a worrying reality. The Social Registry, as HuffPost India has previously reported, is meant to automatically track when a citizen moves between cities, changes jobs, buys new property, when a member of a family is born, dies or gets married and moves to their spouse’s home, and their religion, caste, income, education, marital status, employment, disability and family-tree data.
And like the Social Registry will be built upon the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) first conducted in 2011, the Samagram system is built on the Samagra Kutumba Survey, also known as the Integrated Household Survey, that was conducted by the Telangana government in 2014 to gather granular demographic and socio-economic data of every single resident of the state.
Telangana’s Samagram database is also available to the state’s law enforcement agencies, confirming that data ostensibly collected for poverty alleviation is also being used by the coercive arms of the state.
Manoranjan Kumar, former Economic Advisor to the Union Ministry of Rural Development and one of the architects of the proposed Social Registry, told HuffPost India he now fears that the massive database had significant potential for misuse.
“I would not implement it until other systems around it are reformed in a way that there is symmetry and justice for citizens,” Kumar told HuffPost India. “Improve the data security in the government. Improve the capacity of the courts. Then you implement this kind of system. Otherwise it can only be misused by the state.”
A scarily accurate picture
In a nondescript two-storey office in a posh Hyderabad neighbourhood, a senior government official typed the names of an iconic city-based sports person and their father. In seconds, 12 records linked to their name popped up on a giant wall-mounted screen — address, phone number, high school and higher secondary exam details, passport and driving licence information and vehicle ownership details.
“They are quite rich. They have got four vehicles,” the official said with a smile. “Now we’ll try to build their network. How they are linked to others. This is only for law and order. Even if you just give a phone number, everything it builds.”
A couple more clicks of the mouse, and the official pulled up a pictorial representation of all their family relationships. Pointing to the sportsperson’s sibling, the official said, “They never stated anywhere in the government records that they have a sibling, but the system itself connected and established the relationship.”
HuffPost India is withholding the name and gender of the sportsperson to protect their privacy.
The Samagram system, the official told HuffPost India, maps five kinds of relationships: parents, children, siblings, spouses, and other residual relationships like people living in the same address, people using the same phone number or email id. “If you click on any of those individuals, the relationship tree further develops that person’s network,” the official said. “You can keep drilling down until the last node is reached.”
The official said the relationship-network feature of the Samagram application is only available to very senior officials in the law and order enforcement agencies.
“This is first of its kind in the country. Imagine the power that exists with the enforcement agencies,” the official said. “All you had was just two things. The name and address. But today what kind of picture you have.”
The official said that a number of Indian law-enforcement agencies were attempting to build similar databases.
“This kind of network resolution, the Financial Intelligence Unit wants to try, the income tax department wants to try, NATGRID wants to try, all enforcement agencies want to try. They are at various levels. But nobody has reached this advanced level on this scale,” said the official.
NATGRID, or the National Intelligence Grid, is an ambitious surveillance and counter-terror intelligence program that the central government has been trying to build for the past several years
Telangana state officials say their tracking and matching system is scarily accurate.
“As all of us are aware, all of us have digital footprints. Whenever we do some kind of a transaction where record maintenance is required, we leave behind a digital footprint,” Ranjan, Principal Secretary of Telangana’s Department of IT, said in a public address in July 2019. HuffPost India has obtained and reviewed a video of that address. “If you tell me one person’s name I can give his entire digital footprint at about 96% accuracy to then.”
‘No need for consent’
Telangana’s Samagram, or Samagra Vedika as it is also known, works by using algorithms to triangulate a person’s identity. The algorithms, officials say, use “machine-learning” — a buzzy way of saying that the algorithms self-correct to improve their accuracy.
As Ranjan explained in his public address, the Telangana government built the system by integrating 30 different government databases to build a comprehensive digital profile of each resident in the state.
“For example, if you open a bank account, the bank database records you. If you buy a mobile phone, a sim card rather, the operator’s database records you. You will be recorded on the voters’ list, if you are paying property tax, you will be recorded in the property tax list. If you have any commercial activity going, suppose you pay GST, then you will be there in GST database and so on,” Ranjan said in his public address. “Each of us exists on multiple databases that constitutes our digital profile.”
The Samagram system can create these individual digital profiles using a person’s name and their address as the basic building blocks. Adding additional details like phone numbers, for instance, speeds up the process and makes it more accurate.
State government officials justify this level of surveillance on the grounds of improving governance.
“It’s a known fact that the correct and full revenue due to the State Government from its legitimate revenue sources such as Trade License Fee, Property Tax or Vehicle Registration etc. is not being collected,” G.T. Venkateshwar Rao, Commissioner of Electronic Service Delivery, Telangana, told HuffPost India in an email. “Likewise, there are instances of people owning cars or large amount of land or having businesses and yet claiming welfare benefits of the state like old age pensions, subsidised food grains meant for citizens belonging to lower income group. They manage to claim these benefits.”
Meanwhile, said Rao, genuinely eligible people were being denied benefits. “Hence, it was decided to implement a project, called Samagra Vedika, to bring part of data available with different departments to address above issues and improve Governance.”
The fact that the system doesn’t use Aadhaar, Rao said, meant it was outside the purview of the September 2019 Supreme Court judgment that restricted how Aadhaar could be used.
He conceded that the Supreme Court’s famous Right To Privacy judgement of 2017 was relevant, but the judgement allowed the state to restrict privacy for legitimate ends.
“Hon’ble Supreme Court has in the judgement outlined legitimate aims of the state which includes Protection of Revenue of the state, Prevention of Dissipation of Social welfare benefits, National security, Protection of law and order, prevention of crime etc,” Rao said. “The objectives of Samagra Vedika discussed earlier fall under these legitimate aims of the state as per the Hon’ble Supreme Court judgement.”
Rao said there was no need to seek the consent of citizens for creating such profiles because Samagram did not require the state to collect fresh information – rather the system collated citizen data that had already been gathered by different government departments.
“It is only a small part of the data that is already available with various departments that is used. There is no profiling of persons in general under the application,” Rao said. “It is only the record linkage across the data bases on a real time when a citizen applies for a benefit or the revenue due to Government is not paid, analysis is done for that transaction.”
The system, Rao claimed, had several security measures and access to the database was restricted to senior government officials. “Audit Trail of the users are maintained and the principle of data minimization is followed,” Rao said, without a trace of irony.
Privacy experts disagreed with Rao’s characterisation of the Samagram system.
“It is true that restrictions can be placed on the right to privacy, for the purpose of achieving a legitimate state aim. However, the need for a legitimate state aim is only one of several conditions that the Supreme Court has laid for allowing such restrictions,” said Smitha Krishna Prasad, Associate Director at the Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi.
The Supreme Court judgment, added Prasad, had said that restrictions to the right to privacy must be also authorised under a law. The violation of an individual’s privacy must also be proportional to achieving the legitimate aims of the state.
“The court has put these conditions so that the state does not misuse the argument of legitimate purpose to infringe upon rights of citizens,” Prasad said. “That is the reason mass surveillance of the entire population cannot be allowed even for law and order.”
“In this case, even if the collection of data by one department is authorised by law, for a specific purpose, that does not mean that the law authorises the use of such data for other purposes. And personal data collection or processing of it for the entire population can also not be proportionate to the stated purpose here,” she added.
“Creating 360-degree profiles of citizens by aggregating their data from multiple silos can be misused in several ways, specially because India does not yet have a strong data protection law,” said Apar Gupta, Executive Director of the non-profit Internet Freedom Foundation. “Today without check, this personal information can be sold to marketers or has the potential to be used by those who hold this data to micro target us to reinforce biases and behaviours or make them more extreme. Such conditioning can be easily achieved on scale and broken down to specific individuals. All of this technology exists and is used widely.”