What is data colonisation and why it matters to us in India

Colonising a country no longer requires its physical invasion with military strength

Osama Manzar
Imran Chippa allegedly started to gain unauthorised access to RJio’s systems in the first week of July and the company’s customer data started to appear on magicapk.com

Last Updated : Aug 17 2017 | 10:43 AM IST

Colony (n) is a country or area under the full or partial political control of another country and occupied by settlers from that country.

Colonisation (n) is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.

By those definitions, neither India nor any region of it is a colony of a dominant society, community or country anymore. However, India and its population is no longer a nation that is defined by its physical presence alone either. We are all living our lives within the geographical boundaries of India and within the virtual boundaries of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, Airbnb, Uber, and hundreds of other mobile apps. 

Our lives today are as much about our physical being as they are about our data. The only difference is that while we are conscious of our physical lives, we are seldom aware of how our data is being used by its custodians, which may not necessarily be a government but could very well be a multinational company based in a developed country.

When an individual lives within the territorial boundaries of a country, the latter is expected to safeguard the former’s identity, information, and privacy. However, who guarantees the same when lives (and their data) are no longer restricted to geographical boundaries but co-exist at multiple virtual locations in a 'connected world'? More importantly, how much control do they have over their identity and data? As more and more individuals go online and more and more information is turned digital, a strong race to compete for the ownership of data will be visible, if traces of it are not visible already. And the strength of the "coloniser" would be judged by the vastness of the data "colonised".

Let’s take the example of Facebook. Although it is not a country, the American company holds data, including personal and private information, of more than 150 million Indians. In this sense, India could very well be a colony of the popular social networking site, which not only holds our personal information but also tracks our daily routine, habits, behaviour, and communication. This extent of information about 150 million Indians is enough to help the social networking giant influence decisions, both democratic and consumerist, taken by individuals. All this is already visible today. Facebook is influencing individual choices when it comes to what product they are buying next or which party will they vote for.

So, it does not come as a surprise that five of the top 10 companies of the world, in terms of market share, are US tech giants. Further, all these companies are investing heavily in artificial intelligence, internet of things, and cloud computing. From your cars and weighing machines to mobile phones and wrist watches, almost every tech-enabled device or gadget we use is collecting massive amounts of data. In fact, technology is driving growth in almost every sector. Earlier this year, the Economist rightly said, "Data are to this century what oil was to the last one: a driver of growth and change. Flows of data have created new infrastructure, new businesses, new monopolies, new politics and—crucially—new economics." Governments in various parts of the world are already fighting battles with tech giants for fear of losing sovereignty over their people or jeopardising their security.

Let’s not forget that be it the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese or Spanish, they all initially entered the countries that they later colonised to do business. It was only gradually that they extended their business interests and started intervening in governance, eventually taking complete control over the countries. 

Colonising a country no longer requires its physical invasion with military strength but can simply be done by controlling activities through networks and databases with a single click.

The use of the internet has exponentially increased in the last decade, exposing individuals to thousands of benefits of a connected world, starting from making communication faster to accessing services easier. When we give our data to Google Maps, we know we’re giving our private information in exchange of a traffic-free route to our destination — and we do this without thinking how our personal data may be used by Google.

Let’s take the example of Aadhaar now. It is one of the largest databases of information about individuals and it is not restricted to data of connected people but extends beyond to those who are not connected, are poor, and are illiterate. There is a huge potential for this information being used to catch people in a virtual captivity.

Today our data is controlled as much by the Indian government as it is by Google. This dominance of data online is increasing the hegemony of multinational corporations over individuals all around the world. Gradually, borders will not decide control over people or their nationality. In stead, control over data will. The future of control over humanity will be decided by who owns how much of our data. 

Therefore, I completely agree with Infosys Co-Founder Nandan Nilekani when he says, "Time is running out and India needs to take a strategic view on data colonisation, privacy, and data dominance, it is a policy issue and not a technology issue that needs to be addressed soon."


First Published: Aug 17 2017 | 10:22 AM IST

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