Privacy vs. Transparency: An Attempt at Resolving the Dichotomy

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Nov 14, 2014 01:50 AM |
The right to privacy has been articulated in international law and in some national laws. In a few countries where the constitution does not explicitly guarantee such a right, courts have read the right to privacy into other rights (e.g., the right to life, the right to equal treatment under law and also the right to freedom of speech and expression).

With feedback and inputs from Sumandro Chattapadhyay, Elonnai Hickok, Bhairav Acharya and Geetha Hariharan. I would like to apologize for not providing proper citation to Julian Assange when the first version of this blog entry was published. I would also like to thank Micah Sifry for drawing this failure to his attention. The blog post originally published by Omidyar Network can be read here. Also see

In other countries where privacy is not yet an explicit or implicit right, harm to the individual is mitigated using older confidentiality or secrecy law. After the Snowden affair, the rise of social media and the sharing economy, some corporations and governments would like us to believe that “privacy is dead”. Privacy should not and cannot be dead, because that would mean that security is also dead. This is indeed the most dangerous consequence of total surveillance as it is technically impossible to architect a secure information system without privacy as a precondition. And conversely, it is impossible to guarantee privacy without security as a precondition.

The right to transparency [also known as the right to information or access to information] – while unavailable in international law – is increasingly available in national law. Over the last twenty years this right has become encoded in national laws – and across the world it is being used to hold government accountable and to balance the power asymmetry between states and citizens. Independent and autonomous offices of transparency regulators have been established. Apart from increasing government transparency, corporations are also increasingly required to be transparent as part of generic or industry specific regulation in the public interest. For instance, India’s Companies Act, 2013, requires greater transparency from the private sector. Other areas of human endeavor such as science and development are also becoming increasingly transparent though here it is still left up to self-regulation and there isn’t as much established law. Within science and research more generally, the rise of open data accompanied the growth of the Open Access and citizen science movement.

So the question before us is: Are these two rights – the right to transparency and the right to privacy – compatible? Is it a zero-sum game? Do we have to sacrifice one right to enforce the other? Unfortunately, many privacy and transparency activists think this is the case and this has resulted in some conflict. I suggest that these rights are completely compatible when it comes to addressing the question of power. These rights do not have to be balanced against one another. There is no need to settle for a sub-optimal solution. Rather this is an optimization problem and the solution is as follows: privacy protections must be inversely proportionate to power and as Julian Assange says transparency requirements should be directly proportionate to power.[*]

In most privacy laws, the public interest is an exception to privacy. If public interest is being undermined, then an individual privacy can be infringed upon by the state, by researchers, by the media, etc. And in transparency law, privacy is the exception. If the privacy of an individual can be infringed, transparency is not required unless it is in the public interest. In other words, the “public interest” test allows us to use privacy law and transparency law to address power asymmetries rather than exacerbate them. What constitutes “public interest” is of course left to courts, privacy regulators, and transparency regulators to decide. Like privacy, there are many other exceptions in any given transparency regime including confidentiality and secrecy. Given uneven quality of case law there will be a temptation by the corrupt to conflate exceptions. Here the old common-law principle of “there is no confidence as to the disclosure of iniquity” – which prevents confidentiality law from being used to cover malfeasance or illegality – can be adopted in appropriate jurisdictions.

Around 10 years ago, the transparency movement gave birth to yet another movement – the open government data movement. The tension between privacy and transparency is most clearly seen in the open government data movement. The open government data movement in some parts of the world is dominated by ahistorical and apolitical technologists, and some of them seem intent on reinventing the wheel. In India, ever since the enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2003, 30 transparency activists are either killed, beaten or criminally intimidated every year. This is the statistic from media coverage alone. Many more silently suffer. RTI or transparency is without a doubt one of the most dangerous sectors within civil society that you could choose to work in. In contrast, not a single open data activist has ever been killed, beaten or criminally intimidated. I suspect this is because open data activists do not sufficiently challenge power hierarchies. Let us look a little bit closely at their work cycle. When a traditional transparency activist asks a question, that is usually enough to get them into trouble. When an open data activist publishes an answer [a dataset nicely scrubbed and machine readable, or a visualization, or a tool] they are often frustrated because nobody seems interested in using it. Often even the activist is unclear what the question is. This is because open data activist works where data is available. Open data activists are obsessed with big datasets, which are easier to find at the bottom of the pyramid. They contribute to growing surveillance practices [the nexus between Internet giants, states, and the security establishment] rather that focusing on sousveillance [citizen surveillance of the state, also referred to as citizen undersight or inverse surveillance]. They seem to be obsessed only with tools and technologies, rather than power asymmetries and injustices.

Finally, a case study to make my argument easier to understand – Aadhaar or UID, India’s ambitious centralized biometric identity and authentication management system. There are many serious issues with its centralized topology, proprietary technology, and dependence on biometrics as authentication factors – all of which I have written about in the past. In this article, I will explain how my optimization solution can be applied to the project to make it more effective in addressing its primary problem statement that corruption is a necessary outcome of power asymmetries in India.

In its current avatar – the Aadhaar project hopes to assign biometric-based identities to all citizens. The hope is that, by doing authentication in the last mile, corruption within India’s massive subsidy programmes will be reduced. This, in my view, might marginally reduce retail corruption at the bottom of the pyramid. It will do nothing to address wholesale corruption that occurs as subsidies travel from the top to the bottom of the pyramid. I have advocated over the last two years that we should abandon trying to issue biometric identities to all citizens, thereby making them more transparent to the state. Let us instead issue Aadhaar numbers to all politicians and bureaucrats and instead make the state more transparent to citizens. There is no public interest in reducing privacy for ordinary citizens – the powerless – but there are definitely huge public interest benefits to be secured by increasing transparency of politicians and bureaucrats, who are the powerful.

The Indian government has recently introduced a biometric-based attendance system for all bureaucrats and has created a portal that allows Indian citizens to track if their bureaucrats are arriving late or leaving early. This unfortunately is just bean counting [for being corrupt and being punctual are not mutually exclusive] and public access to the national portal was turned off because of legitimate protests from some of the bureaucrats. What bureaucrats do in office, who they meet, and which documents they process is more important than when they arrive at or depart from work. The increased transparency or reduced privacy was not contributing to the public interest.

Instead of first going after small-ticket corruption at the bottom of the pyramid, maximization of public interest requires us to focus on the top, for there is much greater ROI for the anti-corruption rupee. For example: constructing a digital signature based on audit trails that track all funds and subsidies as they move up and down the pyramid. These audit trails must be made public so that ordinary villagers can be supported by open data activists, journalists, social entrepreneurs, and traditional civil society in verification and course correction.

I hope open data activists, data scientists, and big data experts will draw inspiration from the giants of the transparency movement in India. I hope they will turn their attention to power, examine power asymmetries and then ask how the Aadhaar project can be leveraged to make India more rather than less equal.


Open Up? 2014: Risky Business: Transparency, Technology, Security, and Human Rights

Open Up? 2014: Data Collection and Sharing: Transparency and the Private Sector

The videos can also be watched on Vimeo:

  1. Open Up? 2014: Risky Business: Transparency, Technology, Security, and Human Rights
  2. Open Up? 2014: Data Collection and Sharing: Transparency and the Private Sector

[*]. “Transparency should be proportional to the power that one has.”

Read the presentation on Risky Business: Transparency, Technology, Security and Privacy made at the Pecha Kucha session here. (ODP File, 35 kb)

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