To “prepare the next generation of world leaders”, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will hold its 2017 MIT India Conference, this time on “Digital India”. Members of the Indian government and CEOs are travelling to Cambridge to report on the “success” of the US inspired crackdown on the use of cash. As usual, the plight of the cash-using poor and the data-security and privacy nightmare resulting from mandatory biometric identification are unlikely to be discussed.
Developing counties run by authoritarian governments under weak legal restraints are great places to try out disruptive technological plans for changing the social landscape. As Bill Gates said in 2015 at the “Financial Inclusion Forum” in Washington, countries like India can transit to full digitalisation of the economy faster than the USA, inter alia, because there are much less restrictions from legal mandates to protect people’s privacy and data.
“Notebandi”, the sudden banning of banknotes representing over 80% of Indian cash in circulation, which happened in November 2016, was such a disruption on the way to full digitalisation, which could not possibly have taken place in the US, but in India it could.
On April 9, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT will devote its 207 MIT India Conference to the topic of “Digital India”. Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister of Information Technology and Law and Justice, will be one of the prominent speakers from India. He should be able to report to the “future world leaders”, how you can push ahead with a huge databank of biometric information named Aadhaar, which is being used as the cornerstone for digital payments and made mandatory for government payments and services—even if data security and privacy are a disaster, even if the necessary infrastructure is absent in large parts of the country and even if a constitutional court deems it illegal. He can tell them, how you can make sure in country like India that security breaches of that giant database are treated as a matter of national security and thus kept under the rug; how you can further insulate this scheme from criticism by prosecuting people who report on it and by not informing those hundreds of thousands of citizens, whose biometric data already has been stolen and abused. He will most likely either allude vaguely to the important challenge of making sure data are kept secure, or repeat the government's mantra that Aadhaar "is completely safe".
Developing counties run by authoritarian governments under weak legal restraints are great places to try out disruptive technological plans for changing the social landscape. As Bill Gates said in 2015 at the “Financial Inclusion Forum” in Washington, countries like India can transit to full digitalisation of the economy faster than the USA, inter alia, because there are much less restrictions from legal mandates to protect people’s privacy and data
Another speaker will be Santhosh Mathew, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development. His task will presumably be to tell the future world leaders that digital finance is helping people in rural areas and that digitalisation of government payments to citizens with mandatory biometric identification is an improvement for them, despite media reports telling us that many of the poorest citizens are excluded from food support, either for lack of an Aadhaar Card, or due to technical problems with the identification, or due to a lack of mobile network coverage, forcing them to walk for hours and to climb trees in order to obtain the necessary mobile certification stamp needed to get food rations.
Ananth Narayanan, and ex-Director of McKinsey, which is one of the World Economic Forum's main chearleaders of digitalisation and “digital globalisation”, can possibly report on how his former employer provided ammunition for the digital transformers of India and other attractive markets in a series of reports, not even shying away from outlandish claims like promising India a 10% leap in output, if they only digitalised payments. He can explain how you tailor your message to the audience and talk about helping the poor and the whole country when addressing the general public, while telling the companies that you advise that “digital finance offers a huge new business opportunity—to providers."
In the words of the organisers of the MIT-conference, the speakers will “explore disruptive innovations ideas and practical solutions adopted by different entities—government, big corporations and emerging start-ups—to empower the country with increased access to different technologies, services and information to make the vision of Digital India a reality.”
It is a vision that has been expressed long before Narendra Modi came to power in Washingtonian IT and national security circles.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.