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6th Biannual Surveillance and Society Conference

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 05, 2014 04:57 AM
Malavika Jayaram is a speaker at the conference organized by Eticas Research and Consulting at the University of Barcelona and CCCB from April 24 to 26, 2014.

Malavika will present on the UID and biometrics at the session on “Surveillance: Ambiguities and Uncertainties". Malavika's talk title is "Biometrics in beta: experimenting on a nation (while normalising surveillance for 1.2 billion people)" and is being held on April 26. See the full event details on this page.


In the developing world, privacy is often portrayed as a luxury, as something alien to local culture and of interest only to the elite. This ignores the probability of the most marginalized sections of a society being disproportionately impacted by privacy intrusive technologies. The hype about ‘big data’, ‘open data’, ‘data for development’, ‘ICT4D’ and other buzzwords often ignores the fact that the global south is particularly vulnerable to data collection and processing. Literacy issues (lingual and technical), a massive digital divide, desperate socioeconomic conditions and the lack of a robust data protection law render ideas of consent or tradeoffs all but meaningless.

Techno-utopian welfare schemes present technology as progressive, neutral and frictionless – a seductive and compelling narrative in a region wracked by inequalities, corruption, lack of transparency and structural violence. This vision underpins the world’s largest biometric ID project, which has already registered the irises and fingerprints of 540 million people without even being completed. Yet the assumption that bodies can be rendered into infallible verifiers, as repositories of unchanging truth, ignores embedded biases and normative baselines within such technologies. Welfare projects are further complicated when they are architected as public-private partnerships: the collusion of governmental and corporate agendas in creating massive databases and profiles, in a manner that transforms the citizen-state relationship in profound ways, has sweeping implications for choice, autonomy, anonymity and ultimately, democracy. This is true even when the systems function as intended, without mechanical failure, data breaches, or other consequences of trading privacy for convenience, welfare and security.

I would like to discuss the risks of using technologies such as biometrics to solve socioeconomic problems, and their potential for excluding the very demographics that they seek to include. I intend to locate my presentation in the context of India’s growing surveillance state, which deliberately intends to use the unique identification number to link disparate databases. I propose to describe the new Centralised Monitoring System, the relative legal vacuum in which data is mined and harvested, and the shaky constitutional foundations on which many of these new regimes stand. In so doing, I will effectively have provided a tour of India’s Rogue’s Gallery of recent incursions into the zone of privacy, free speech, informational self-determination and dignity. I hope also to redress in some small measure the largely western focus of academic and policy debates in this field, despite the risks of developing countries seeking to commoditize and export identity schemes, normalize censorship or opportunistically benefit from the west no longer having the moral ground to resist third country surveillance practices.

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