Data: Brave new frontier

Big brother out, big data in- in the advent of the digital age, companies rely on data to profile clients.

Published: 29th September 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 28th September 2019 01:32 PM   |  A+A-


For representational purposes

“Today it is said that data is the new oil. I will also add that data is the new gold. Industry 4.0 is focused 
on data. If there is one country in the world where data is the cheapest, it is India.” 
—Prime Minister Narendra Modi at ‘Howdy, Modi!’, Houston, US.

Big Brother is out. Big data is in. It is part of almost every aspect of our lives today—what to buy, where to travel, what to eat—it makes the world go around. In the advent of the digital age, companies rely on data to profile clients.

Generals largely rely on data to play war games. Cold War I witnessed two worldviews competing against each other, driven by different ideologies. Capitalism won, Communism lost. However, the present Cold War is different.

Power is measured in terms of who controls data. Unmanned Aerial Drones receive real-time information to hit moving targets—picture Tony Stark launching missiles around the globe with a single command.

Or a hostile government uses data to influence an election in a rival country. Or courts approving the Right to be Forgotten.

Neighbouring countries, India and China, are in the data race to get an edge over regional clout. Spy satellites and drones can generate astronomical amounts of data, a good deal more than their physical counterparts could ever manage, with dedicated teams in place to sift through this data.

How does this information ultimately help the soldiers manning borders? Drones act as their eyes and ears above, and not to mention, help in targeting and neutralising militants attempting deadly mischief.

Advance information collected through various data analytics networks help intelligence teams to thwart terror attacks. Moreover, data warriors can counter-terror promotion by groups such as ISIS with the help of analytics. Reji KT, 23, works to secure the nation.

But he does not move an inch away from his computer. He is part of a startup that provides intelligent solutions to soldiers on the borders.

“Data analytics is a game-changer in today’s times. Post the Doklam crisis, many startups like ours have cropped up that assist the security forces. Our soldiers have to deal with treacherous terrain, and the knowledge that there is someone who has your back helps,” he says.

Most of such firms operate out of Bengaluru or Gurgaon. Globally, defence analytics is a $2 billion market.

“We are literally the digitised version of the physical logbooks that soldiers used to once have,” smiles Reji.

His firm manages to give precise information on possible terrorist attacks and infiltration across borders—a must, especially when the country has two hostile neighbours in China and Pakistan. Data analytics is critical in the modern battlefield.

There are over 200-plus data analytics firms in India. The major players include Manthan, Brillio, Mu Sigma, Cartesian Consulting and Fractal Analytics, and they sniff out all the wrongdoing—from cross-border infiltration to narcotic smuggling.

For tax sleuths, stock traders and the food and services industry, data is the new buzzword. The Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) has been given a collection target of Rs 5.69 trillion in personal income tax in the fiscal year 2019-2020—a whopping 19.2 per cent more than the previous fiscal.

Taxmen would conduct random surveys to ensure compliance. All this would, of course, be helped to a large extent by the data that tax officials can tap into.

Stock trading is also taking the help of data analytics in predicting the rise and fall in the markets. 

Recently tech giant IBM became a surprise entrant to the food sector. It is teaming up with seasonings maker McCormick to ‘explore flavour territories and predict new flavour combinations’.

Likewise, many restaurants and food providers are increasingly using data analytics. This enables the company to enforce quality control and meet changing demands.

Often we hear of a particular restaurant phasing out an old menu and adding a new one—many do this by researching behavioural data that informs them on customer preferences. Ingredients, spices, and garnishments that would guarantee customer satisfaction are pinpointed. 

Parimal Shah, President—International Operations, MK Jokai Group, says, “An insight into consumer behaviour, an understanding of preferences of different types of consumers and analysis of the footfalls are major elements the FMCG sector depends on to improve its products and services. 

Digitisation gives organisations easy and quick access to valuable user data on a daily basis.

This data is a minefield of information that when analysed systematically can help companies understand patterns of consumption and consumer behaviour.

This, in turn, paves way for proactive decision-making and customising of products and services to meet the needs of buyers.

While gathering and understanding data to make business decisions has always been done by companies, the availability of big data makes the process highly precise and faster.”

Data analytics also offers insights into hospital management, patient records, costs, diagnoses, and more.

They provide real-time information—from financial and administrative data to information that can aid patient care efforts—to help managers operate better.

Aman Iqbal, Founder, Vantage Enterprise, a movement for automating healthcare industry using data, says, “Predictive and preventive healthcare from the standpoint of data is an efficient move towards early detection of diseases. If human health data is captured accurately and made use of efficiently, then it is envisioned to create a unified platform which will provide useful insights to healthcare providers.

Preventive healthcare is the future in India. The adoption is currently slow, is still in the growth stage of 12 per cent year-on-year in a country like India, in comparison to what happens in the West. Treatment costs are more than the money spent in preventive healthcare.

There is a current need for awareness, accessibility and affordability around preventive healthcare. Data analytics from preventive healthcare will help in identification of disease vulnerabilities in near future that a common man is exposed to and empower him to design a better healthcare journey for himself.”

Little wonder that predictive analytics solutions is fast becoming the need of the hour, especially in a country like India with a billion-plus population where quality and fast medical care are still a hurdle.

Jayatika Tiwari was taking a break at home when she decided to do an online search for flight tickets to Morocco on a whim.

After spending some time on it, she powered her laptop down and carried on with her day’s work. But her digital footprints were still very much active all over the net. Soon, Jayatika started getting mails and even Facebook suggestions on places to see in Morocco, hotels to stay in, what to do and how to go about it.

The internet, it seems, was working overtime to plan her holiday. “It was crazy. All I did was look for flight options.

It’s like someone is constantly watching what we do on the net,” she says. Now Jayatika browses the net in incognito mode—a trick she picked up from her techie husband. Recent reports suggest that there are more than 500 million internet users in India.

Their number is second only to China, which has 731 million internet users. The US, with 312 million on the web, comes third.

Imagine each of those users leaving a digital footprint almost a mile-long each day—where they go, what they eat, how they shop, how much they spend on what—all neatly recorded in data banks to be mined at will and used as and when needed. Data is indeed the new oil. 

All this play around data analytics is achieved by collected data from millions of data points.

So, each time you do a simple task like pressing the ‘Like’ button for a post on Facebook or retweeting something or taking a simple and fun online survey, yet another byte of your data is getting stored somewhere in some corner of the world.

Soon, you will see more of what you like and what you want to like, the cycle being endless, as Jayatika discovered. But, like Reji, there is also a positive to it.

The country is digitising with every WhatsApp forward. Free WiFi services have been set up by Google at over 400 train stations across India. Not to be outdone, Facebook is in plans to set up 20,000 hotspots that would connect users for about Rs 10 a day.

In the midst of all this, to make sure that the rural population is not left back, the government plans to install 2,50,000 hotspots across villages in India. 

Diwakar Dayal, Managing Director, Tenable—a cyber exposure company that manages and measures cyber risk—says, “In the age of internet, more and more people, businesses and organisations are online leaving digital footprints every step of the way—and this data can be used and weaponised.

Together with political will, we need to adopt right measures and approaches to ensure it is done right. One of the major pros in having all the data of each and every individual in a single place can help in resolving investigations.”

A McKinsey report put the size of India’s digital economy in 2017-18 at around $200 billion. Arguably, Mukesh Ambani with his $20 billion mobile network—Reliance Jio—launched in September 2016, completely changed how the country looked at data.

Suddenly, Indians were armed with free 4G high-speed internet. Jio has built up a subscriber base of more than 250 million people and the company predicts India will be ‘fully 4G’ by 2020.

It has also produced several Indian startups with multi-billion dollar valuations that mine data to fuel their organisations. Commuting giant Ola has a presence in about 110 Indian cities.

Flipkart controls 40 per cent of India’s online retail market; Paytm has over 300 million users. Needless to add, global players are eyeing India and its digital economy. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway picked up a stake in Paytm, Japan’s SoftBank has a stake in Ola, Flipkart is now controlled by US retailer Walmart, Chinese tech firm Tencent has a share in both Flipkart and Ola, and Disney is in the process of getting its hands on Hotstar.

But at the same time, data collected from individuals is owned and manipulated by various companies today, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, besides others such as ride-sharing, food delivery, grocery apps, etc.

A lot of this data can be used for governance and policy purposes. For instance, data from ride-sharing companies such as Uber and mapping tools such as Google Maps can be used as a tool for surveillance and monitoring purposes, if not effectively regulated.

With smartphones, laptops, smart wearables, and speakers, technology companies have been able to get data with ever-increasing privacy-violating methods.

Ashis Guha, CEO at RAH Infotech, a speciality value-added distributor of mission-critical technology solutions including network and cybersecurity, disaster recovery and cloud, says, “Personal data is the property of the individual and having complete control of the same makes the individual empowered. The individual should be the sole authority to decide how whom and where to share the data.”

According to the IMF’s Annual Observance Report of the Special Data Dissemination Standard for 2018, India failed to comply with multiple requirements prescribed in the Special Data Dissemination Standard (SDDS)—a practice mandatory for all IMF members.

Comparable economies comprising the BRICS grouping of Brazil, China, South Africa and Russia, have maintained a near impeccable record. The SDDS initiative was launched in 1996 to guide members to enhance data transparency and help financial market participants assess economic situations.

Right now, Parliament is debating the Personal Data Protection Bill, and as such, India doesn’t have any legal safeguards protecting users’ data.

But the sad truth is, policymakers haven’t put enough thought on what and how the legal framework will work. Remember Cambridge Analytica? It easily tapped into Facebook data to make some people not vote out of apathy and some vote out of fear during the US elections that gave the world President Donald Trump. Satish Kumar, CEO, EverestIMS Technologies—a veteran in the IoT space, says, “It is very important to have right policies protecting the basic rights of the people. Respecting the informational privacy of the individual helps in a clean digital economy. With a government policy to safeguard information, there will be some weapon in the hands of common people.”
If knowledge is power, data is absolute power.

What the law states

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution is a fundamental right that guarantees protection of life and personal liberty.

On August 24, 2017, the Supreme Court in the decision of Justice KS Puttaswamy (retd) vs Union of India held that privacy is a constitutionally protected right which arises out of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

The protection under Article 21 is not absolute and is subject to certain restrictions. 

A draft Personal Data Protection Bill is presently under consideration. As on date, the current framework for data protection is set out in the Information Technology, 2000 and the rules issued thereunder, most importantly the Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules, 2011.

As per Section 43A of the IT Act, where a body corporate, possessing, dealing or handling any sensitive personal data or information in a computer resource which it owns, controls or operates, is negligent in implementing and maintaining reasonable security practices and procedures causes wrongful loss or wrongful gain to any person, such body corporate will be liable to pay damages by way of compensation to the person so affected.

The Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology in 2017 formed the BN Srikrishna Committee for making recommendations for a draft bill on data protection law. The Committee submitted its report in July 2018 along with the draft Personal Data Protection Bill which will have jurisdiction over processing of personal data, if that data has been used, shared, disclosed, collected or otherwise processed in India, and aims at data localisation, ie, a copy of all personal data mandatorily being stored in India.

Privacy matters

During a recent hearing on data privacy in the Supreme Court, Justice Deepak Gupta said, “It is dangerous the way the technology is going.

After the last hearing I researched and found I could buy an AK-47, on the dark web, in 30 minutes. I was telling someone I want to give up my smartphone.” Prashanth GJ, CEO of TechnoBind, the first specialist distributor in the Indian IT channel space, offering a hybrid distribution model, says, “In today’s digitally connected world, an individual’s personal information has become the key to access business-critical applications, do financial transactions and identify a person. It’s a basic right of people to check if their personal data is safe and secured. Protecting this personal data is crucial.” 

Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, recently revealed in Parliament that the government has earned Rs 65 crore till date by providing access to vehicular database—vehicle registration and drivers’ licence details—to 87 private and 32 government entities. Parliament is still debating the Personal Data Protection Bill. India as yet does not have any legal safeguards for personal data.

We should take a leaf out of the European Union’s General Data Protection Rules to arrive at a document that would best address all lacunae. 

Shibu Paul, Vice President-International Sales, Array Networks that solves performance and complexity challenges for businesses moving toward virtualised networking, security and application delivery, sums up, “We need to realise that there is no need for a trade-off between privacy and security. Technology enables us to have both. All that needs to be done is ensure best practices being stringently followed by all.”

How Data Mining Helps:

This looks at the items that a customer bought. It is a huge help to brick-and-motar stores and works on predicting future customer behaviour by past performance.

It looks at customising products to suit demand. One can predict the features users may want and add the elements accordingly.

Looks at when customers last bought something, and predicts when they will buy again. It helps plan on what to stock.


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