If you have read the book 1984 by George Orwell, you will know what I am talking about.
Big Brother (BB) is an unseen Supremo, personifying the power of the government. BB watches over what every single person does every moment of the day and seeks out anyone whose behaviour threatens the government in any way.
Fortunately, what Orwell foresaw as the future has not quite happened, at least not yet. But there is scope for it to happen in one part of our lives—money.
The ever-expanding use of digital transactions brings with it an inevitable consequence—every transaction is on record.
Think about it.
How often do you use cash nowadays?
Probably once in a way, if at all.
You are likely to be using a unified payment interface (UPI) for small payments, credit or debit cards for bigger items and online purchases, and national electronic funds transfer (NEFT) for the erstwhile cheque payments. Cash will account for only a few per cent of your monthly spend.
The government has adopted a deliberate strategy to progressively choke out cash from the system, as evident from the steps being taken, namely:
- After the exit of the Rs2,000 note, the highest denomination is Rs500. To pay Rs1 crore, you will need a minimum of 20,000 banknotes which weigh 23kgs. This makes it more challenging to do huge transactions, in cash or move large amounts of cash from one place to another.
- More and more restrictions are being imposed on large cash transactions, and any cash transaction above relatively small limits has to be reported.
- Use of digital transactions is being encouraged by making it very simple and cost-free.
Digital transactions have already reached huge volumes: UPI (10bn—billion per month) credit (280mn—million per month) and debit (210mn per month) cards, plus NEFT and real time gross settlement (RTGS).
Overall, it is a humongous amount of data.
If the data of one particular person is sifted out of this massive mass of information, a very clear picture would emerge of this person’s spending habits, down to how much he spends on medicines, petrol, groceries ...even roadside pani-puri.
Before you ask—yes, this can be done.
The data is all there, fairly well concentrated, not scattered all over the place. The analytic tools are there already and there is no shortage of eager analytics geeks ready to jump into a feast of data crunching.
Is this being done?
I don’t know and the government is not telling.
Let us assume, for a moment, that this data is indeed being crunched. What could be the purpose of doing this?
The ‘good’ reason would be using the data to identify people who are spending much more than their declared sources of income which could mean that they are hiding income on which tax is payable but is being evaded. The data could reveal the people who are social criminals, i.e., people who are cheating society of its just dues and are therefore liable to be tracked down and punished.
The ‘bad’ reason would be: to find cause to hound and harass people whom the government does not like, thereby selectively using this powerful analytical tool to oppress the opponents of the government while turning a blind eye to its friends.
There are other negative fallouts as well, such as :
- The data falling into the hands of powerful corporates who could dice and slice it to manipulate customer preferences and influence their buying patterns.
- Nefarious hackers getting hold of detailed data about our entire population.
Note—I am not saying that our current government is doing any of this.
The point is—it can.
As we well know, governments do not last forever, and “the evil that men do lives after them”. Even if the present government uses this power in a responsible manner, to achieve results that are beneficial to the public, there is no guarantee that future governments won’t misuse it.
What protection do we ‘bechara mango people' have against the misdoings of an errant government?
A cynical view would be, why are you bothered if you have nothing to hide?
But a more cogent answer is—a robust system of checks & balances to ensure that data is treated with respect and not misused by anyone.
To achieve this, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act was passed recently in Parliament, but some aspects of it leave me unhappy, such as:
- The Opposition, in its wisdom, decided to spend its valuable time on other matters, instead of engaging the government in a thorough and healthy debate about the Act and its provisions.
- The Act will not be implemented for quite some time yet. An indicative timeline is 10 months, i.e., mid-2024, but there is no definitive date.
- Most importantly, the Act gives very broad powers to the government to “exempt itself and its agencies from most requirements of the Act on certain grounds (e.g., sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State).” Ominous words – need I say more?
Bottom line: personal financial information, in fine detail, is now available to the government and our privacy is ‘protected’ by a law that may not really provide much protection.
The perfect scenario for Big Brother to emerge, wouldn’t you say?
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)