In several Asian countries, privacy laws present a dilemma for both citizens and the government. Although many Asian countries such as India and Singapore attempt to track citizens through identification and surveillance programs, advocacy groups routinely push back against changes by citing rights to privacy. Asian countries have become tech empires with cutting-edge systems to record data. However, the rapid pace and intrusion involved in implementing government-led surveillance initiates may indicate that these governments have overreached their threshold of power.
In India, the country’s Supreme Court determined the government crossed a line with the proposed surveillance program Aadhaar. The plan would have required Indian citizens to provide the government with their fingerprints and iris scans, a system that many activists claim to be unfairly targeted at the country’s poor. With the new ruling in place, citizens are expected to have new personal privacy protections and online data privacy protections.
In the text of the right to privacy judgement, the Supreme Court found that “while the legitimate expectation of privacy may vary from intimate zone to the private zone and from the private to public arenas… privacy attaches to the person since it is an essential facet of the dignity of the human being.”
Although the court’s decision was in favor of personal liberty protections, the implications of the new law are murky. In a press conference, Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters that privacy will be met with “reasonable restrictions.”
The effect of the law on data protection was also unclear: although the law indicated new initiatives to protect personal online data, the Court did not specify how the enacted law would affect Indian tech companies, the government, and citizens. With the emergence of the digital economy in India, private tech companies may face restrictions on the use of users’ data. The law also may not be able to reach the scope of users in India. According to a report from Nasscom and Akamai technologies, the number of internet users in India is estimated to reach 730 million by 2020.
In the ruling, the Court said that laws must adapt to the internet, where “invasions of data privacy are difficult to detect because they are invisible.” However, the ruling stated that data protection involved “state and non-state actors” and sought to achieve “a careful and sensitive balance between individual interests and legitimate concerns of the state.”
While privacy laws knock down surveillance systems in India to favor citizen’s rights, other countries have launched programs that require citizens to cede personal privacy to the government. In Singapore’s proposed Smart Nation system, the government will deploy sensors to track citizens’ movement, use artificial intelligence to monitor public transport, and create a national digital identity system. The government is set to enact the program in the next five years, with the Smart Nation sensor platform beginning in 2018.
In a speech at the 2017 Digital Government exchange, Singapore head of civil service Peter Ong Boon Kwee said that the Smart Nation Sensor Platform will include sensors and public cameras on all of the 110,000 lampposts in Singapore in a network of sensors for not only maintenance and incident reports, but also “real-time information on households’ utility consumption, and public transport.”
Singapore’s Smart Nation platform also will move the country toward technologies to make society cashless. The e-payments system promotes a secure and seamless way for citizens and businesses to exchange payments. However, many citizens may not catch on to the new system. In a study by Paypal, 67% of consumers in Singapore find it hard to trust payment methods with their personal details and 56% of consumers in Singapore do not think society is ready for new payment methods. Along with consumers, 71% of merchants in Singapore have difficulties trusting new methods of payment with personal information.
For citizens, the cost of personal privacy may be in exchange for Singapore’s progression as a society. In a speech, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan stated that “technology has transformed our lives, our livelihoods and the way we organize our societies, whether we like it or not. So, in Singapore, because we are so small and so open, we don’t have the luxury of size or natural resources, and we know that we are price-takers not price-makers; meaning we have to adapt no matter what happens in the world around us.”
In other countries, such as China, data and privacy laws are less focused on adapting to the age of information and competing with other countries. In fact, China’s new cybersecurity law is directed toward keeping China’s data domestic and protecting citizens’ personal information. The cybersecurity law will require data collected in China to stay in the country. China’s network providers are also expected to update cybersecurity infrastructure in their products and services.
China tightened its grasp on citizens’ personal information. In several articles, the legislation stated that networks must collect individuals’ information with consent and citizens must be informed on the use and purpose of the data.
It’s about time Asian countries have responded to internet privacy protections. In China alone, 731 million citizens are on the internet, according to data from Statista. In India, there are 462 million internet users. Across Asia, China and India hold the biggest share of internet users, with an accumulation of over 64% of Asia’s internet users between the two countries.