What We Have Learnt About Attitudes to Privacy and Vulnerability

Episode 5 - Article 2

The Identities Project has been a learning experience for everyone involved, especially the research team.

Over the last six months, they’ve been privileged to learn about the lives of the “aam aadmi” [“common man”] in India, the people who have been most directly impacted by different identity systems implemented through the years.

As the debate over the privacy implications of Aadhaar continues to rage, in this episode we’d like to throw the spotlight on our own experience with public attitudes to privacy and vulnerability, as surfaced in our interviews.

Income levels impact opinions of privacy

At the start of the research process, we asked people how they felt about the potential for their personal information to be revealed if their identity cards, like Aadhaar, were stolen.

We found that most people weren’t really too bothered, often because they didn’t feel they had enough money for it to matter. Clearly, income levels have a direct bearing on attitudes to privacy. The implication was that as low-income earners, they didn’t matter, and so privacy wasn’t a consideration for them.

This was rather unsatisfying for us, as it might be for some of you reading this. Surely, we thought, everyone should be bothered about their data being stolen, or their identity being exposed too widely?

Emrys Schoemaker referred to his own experience of conducting research in Pakistan a few years ago, where (as it still is today) people were active users of technologies that impact on privacy, such as Facebook. He found that it was not uncommon at all for people to have duplicate Facebook accounts, one for friends and another for family, in order to keep their two lives distinct. This was a practice especially prevalent amongst women, because of the potential for harassment by men in their network if too many details about their lives were revealed.

From individual notions of privacy to a harms-based notion of privacy

We realized then that it might be wise to rephrase our question, shifting from a focus on the individual (and their revealing personally identifiable information) to a focus on events (and the potential for actual harm). In the last phase of the research, we asked different questions, trying to learn, for example,

What aspects of their identity did people prefer to keep secret for fear of harm of any sort? Why?

In Assam, we found that, for women, information about a third or fourth pregnancy was not something they would want acknowledged in public – the idea that someone was unable to control their reproduction was considered shameful. Building on this, we asked a follow-up: in such a situation, what if health data were to be linked to an Aadhaar number, for example?

One woman opened up to this, and said that many other women she knew might be afraid to see a doctor about their pregnancy in this situation, in case it became public knowledge.

Cultural sensitivities always need to be considered

As Alan Westin argues in his 1976 book Privacy and Freedom, the culture of a society impacts how its members perceive their privacy. We found this held true in our research.

In fact, our Indian research team was particularly concerned about being sensitive when asking for information that could be deemed too personal in some cultures. In northeast India, for example, questions regarding citizenship were unlikely to be welcomed because of the tense border situation between India and China, which is relatively near. The team didn’t take these kinds of issues lightly, and had many discussions around what would be the best way to approach them.

Exposure to vulnerability impacts how people feel about identity cards

From a vulnerability perspective, we discovered that many people liked the conveniences that an identity card like Aadhaar gave them.

Where earlier they might have had to negotiate with local government or intermediaries to collect their government benefits, identity cards ensured that they got what they were due much more seamlessly. They told us that it made them feel more independent, and less vulnerable.

For example, Mangalwati, a Rajasthani jewellery seller in Delhi, felt having ID cards protected against being hassled by the police or the New Delhi Municipal Corporation: “if you show your ID proof, they let you stay and sell.”

Conversely, some cards, like the ration card, had a significant ability to expose and enhance other vulnerabilities. One of the things we heard a lot during our interviews was how women were more vulnerable after they got married and moved to their in-laws’ residence. Before, their ration card will have been registered to their parents’ address, but after moving they have to change it to their new address. Going through that process means that their new community would learn their income – only people below a certain threshold are eligible for ration cards – and that, in turn, has the potential to damage their social status.

The research has uncovered several of these very subtle ways in which identity cards and systems can reveal information about people that they might not want revealed – and in ways which they, or others, might not expect.


Read Article Three: When Systems Are Designed For The Many, Not The Few