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Tech companies need to be made more accountable by external environment: Nandan Nilekani

Nandan Nilekani wants technology companies to be more accountable. In the absence of altruism or benevolence on their part, they have to be made more accountable by the external environment, he said during panel discussion held as part of the Raisina Dialogue 2021, organised by the Observer Research Foundation.

We need an external environment that drives companies to this accountability, said Nilekani, who is the non-executive chairman of Infosys Ltd. “Companies can be proactive and lead on these things, but ultimately it has to be through rule of law,” he said.

Other participants on the panel included Margrethe Vestager from the  European Commission, Marietje Schaake from Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center and Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation

Empowering people with their own data

Nilekani said that India’s approach towards contentious issues like data ownership and data sovereignty is “seminal”, because it has an “architecture that empowers people with their own data.”

“For example, if I’m a small business and I want to get a loan, I can get my banking statement from my bank, I can get my tax receipts from the tax authorities, I can get my insurance claim from the insurance company, and I can bundle all this under my encrypted basis and give it to one or more lenders who then will decide whether it’s worth lending to this. This whole thing is called a data empowerment and protection architecture”—Nilekani

Nilekani, who is the former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India and architect behind Aadhaar, said that in India the government has pursued a framework wherein, consent managers facilitate the exchange of data. These managers sit between information providers and information users, and are responsible for ensuring data is exchanged safely and with the users’ consent.

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In response to question on whether India’s model towards data governance can be exported abroad, Nilekani said that India model could be exported and followed by other countries. He cited the examples of national ID (Aadhaar) and Unified Payments Interface system, stating that these ideas can be applied globally.

Male-dominated tech workforce in India

Nilekani admitted that India’s information-technology industry is male-dominated and that there were diversity issues. Despite many women joining the upper echelons of the adult workforce in recent years, most of them are in junior positions, Nilekani said.

He, however, said that the diversity of India’s workforce comes from the number of public-spirited IT professionals who understand the risks of winner take all models and do not work in this sector just for the money.

Citing the example of the ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts, Nilekani said that such an open-source operation was only possible when people in the workforce want to solve such problems. “Generally, the private sector is faster than the government in providing solutions, but in India, the public solution comes just as fast thanks to the kind of workforce that’s in this country,” he said.

Systematic cyber aggression from a few places

Without naming anyone specifically, Nilekani said that India has been facing cyber-threats over the last decade due to “systematic, outward cyber aggression from a few places.” As the dependence on technology goes up, so does the sophistication of these attacks, he said.

When asked about the keeping people safe on digital platforms, Nilekani said that cyber-security is one of the fastest-growing segments and that India has the potential to create solutions for the world.

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