Being part of the identity industry globally, it can be a real eye-opener to see how the concerns and priorities change every few hundred kilometres. The pun on its connection to the technology of iris recognition is entirely unintended, though. From India, where millions of individuals enthusiastically queue up to provide their biometrics to a national database like Aadhaar, to Europe where data protection and privacy laws make it almost impossible to store, share or compare individual data, it becomes apparent that various countries and regions apply different yardsticks on this particular topic. But nobody is perfect.
The USA largely leaves the nitty-gritties to the private sector after providing overall guidelines that essentially go back to the Clinton–Gore administration. In recent years, the pitfalls of this particular approach have been more than exposed. In Europe, on the other hand, individual data protection and privacy continue to be governed by a two-decade-old directive, known as the 95/46/EC.
This is based on the European Union privacy and human rights law, which in turn draws itself from the essence of the European convention on human rights – article 8. While this directive is followed by and large across Europe as well considered as a model by countries in other regions, it has not been passed as law even in most of the European Union member countries. This situation is likely to change with the introduction of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2016, which is recommended to automatically become law in each of the member countries at the end of three years, that is by 2019.
In India for example, despite the records of over 900 million individuals being stored in a central repository, there is no data privacy law, and any potential misuse of data is protected only by an ad hoc Supreme Court directive. Even the agency administering the program – the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) is yet to be provided with legal status, and a corresponding law still needs to be enacted by the national parliament and also, a full constitutional bench is to be convened to determine issues such as how data protection and privacy are linked to the fundamental rights and directive principles enshrined in the nation’s constitution. In South Africa, similar provisions fall under the Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act, which has been debated extensively during the last few years during which time, it has been enacted.
Globally, such variations in laws, directives and practices form a complex web around how technologies are deployed for various purposes by authorities and organisations for the purpose of security, welfare and the determination of legal identity. These also form, in some way, the basis of the age-old social-contract between the state and the individual.
In most cases, the immediate concerns and thus the local contexts are apparent: in South Africa it is having secure building environments – offices, homes and even public spaces that are enclosed in buildings such as shopping malls. In Europe the concept of 'gate' is pushed to the national boundary, thus giving rise to phenomena such as asylum seeking and refugee interspersed with temporal singularities such as statelessness. In India it is simpler concerns of providing access to food security irrespective of origin, but possibly exposing yourself to the rough and tumble of the country’s slum politics.
Is security then, as much a cultural and civilisational construct? It seems to require us to a priori define the ‘other’ and then building borders in between. No matter how we define it, we do not seem to eliminate from it the sense of discrimination and exploitation that often accompanies it. Our statesmen too have warned us throughout history that all this is often as much a problem of the mind.
What is disturbing is that today it is beginning to draw lines that divide humanity more decisively than ever before. Firstly, into those whose identities we can take for granted due to the numerous material attachments – bank accounts, jobs, businesses, tax records and mobile devices. On the other hand, there are the 'others' who may not even be afforded the luxury of a birth record. Linked to this are the issues of perennial impoverishment due to gender, child trafficking and other evils that continue to haunt us worldwide.
Can these twain ever meet? Is it all in our minds, or does it need us to manage all this in ways that we are yet to discover? This core issue perhaps requires more of our attention in coming times.
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