Project Insight : A Minority Report?

Mass Surveillance

We need to worry about this ambitious Big Data project targeting tax evaders, run by a private agency

Some call it an innovative mission to track down tax evaders, while critics term NDA’s ‘Project Insight’ the Minority Report of the tax department — an intrusive data mining mission that can endanger individual liberty in this country. Here’s what we know about the Big Data mission (so far).

Just a few days ago news agency Bloomberg ran a report which said in India tax evaders could soon find themselves in “hot water” courtesy a government-sponsored social media screening programme. A team of geeks will scan through social media interactions of Indian citizens, using big data tools, and find out the “spending habits” of people and correlate such information with their income declarations to find anomalies. Any proven violations will meet with penalty.

Yes, this means exactly what you’ve just guessed. If you post a picture of you with your newly-bought car or an expensive gadget or send out a ‘live feed’ from an exotic location, chances are your taxmen are watching and you can be held accountable for your ‘actions’ and you are answerable to the tax department on the sources of money behind your objects of desire. The Modi government is in fact planning to create a warehouse of virtual information on people’s income. This data mine will not only have information from traditional sources such as banks but also from social media sites. Official says this programme will help tax officials find out tax evaders without raiding offices and residences.

Sounds tad bizarre? There’s more surprise in store for you. Project Insight reportedly costs about Rs 1,000 crore. It will complement India’s huge pool of biometric identity database of Aadhaar cards (which is claimed to be the world’s largest such mission). The rationale behind the move is the fact that revenues aren’t in sync with the growth of the economy. Desperate times calls for desperate measures.

Is India the first to use such data analytics to track tax evaders? Reports suggest countries including Belgium, Canada and Australia are using big data to track tax evasion. Project Insight is similar to the UK’s ‘Connect’ which might have cost 100 million pounds since it’s introduction in 2010. UK claims ‘Connect’ has checked tax evasion to the tune of $5.4 billion in revenues and the number of criminal prosecutions reportedly went up to 1,165 from 165 a year. Connect is run by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, a non-ministerial government department.

But Project Insight will be run by a private company. Reports said the Modi government had last year contracted the work to L&T Infotech. The company is a subsidiary of India’s largest engineering conglomerate Larsen & Toubro. L&T Infotech will build the whole Project Insight network. L&T Infotech executes the project on a BOOT model. After earning enough revenues, the company will, eventually, transfer the project to the government. But critics warn that entrusting a private enterprise to literally snoop over and into citizen’s social media interactions can be dangerous. It can have unwanted collateral damages including serious privacy breach and blackmailing and can throw open new avenues of corruption. In the case of UK’s ‘Connect’, there were concerns that HMRC investigations were “not always fair nor what anyone could have expected,” as a Tory MP put it in a letter recently. The MP alleged that such probes had resulted in “financial calamity” for some individuals.

In India, the impacts of such a mission can be worrying especially given that the government has recently informed the Supreme Court that it doesn’t believe or consider individual privacy to be an absolute right of the citizen. The Modi government’s zealous efforts to push biometrics-enabled Aadhaar card as a mandatory identification document for crucial welfare schemes can also be juxtaposed with Project Insight. Critics also say that in a country like India where individual privacy is breached at will by businesses and several other entities, such mammoth projects can trigger a domino effect of liberty breach. Also, it looks bizarre, they allege, that the Government which had failed to check black money stashed abroad and bring back big-ticket corporate tax defaulters such as liquor baron Vijay Mallya, is turning towards the public at large, especially the common man, and start squeezing his freedoms to cover its embarrassments.

Project Insight is expected to go live by May 2018. And experts worry that if the government could integrate biometric data provided by Aadhar and the data provided in social networks by individuals, it could be the beginning of building a mass surveillance system, a system which knows what you do and how you do. And ubiquitous surveillance doesn’t augur well for the future of democracy in this part of the world.

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