Virtual eye

The Income Tax (I-T) department now intends to ferret black money out by analysing big data from users’ posts on social media sites. The intention is undoubtedly noble but such a move is not only invasive of privacy but also likely to yield inaccurate information.

The tax department’s initiative named ‘Project Insight’ which, according to reports, is likely to be launched next month, is expected to analyse mismatches in income declarations and spending patterns through study of social media posts to trace tax evasion and black money.

That means posts with pictures of flashy new cars, travels or other material wealth could attract attention of tax sleuths.

The amount of snooping that the entire process would involve, especially with the government also insisting on PAN-Aadhaar and Aadhaar-SIM linkage, will provide the authorities concerned with a complete picture of a person’s life.

It is unreasonable. Especially so in a democracy like India in the 21st century. And more importantly after such a historic Supreme Court judgement that dealt exclusively on privacy. This recent judgement of our Supreme Court, by any reckoning, could remain as an internationally acclaimed guideline on laws relating to privacy.

Yet, back home here in India, our government and the bureaucrats operating the levers of power do everything they are capable of to dislodge the image of this country as a modern and vibrant society.

While initiatives that aim to achieve tax compliance are definitely necessary, the focus of the department appears to be on getting personal information out rather than getting their hands on taxes due. There are definitely other means as well to keep track of tax evasion and black money than prying into social media accounts of individuals to fish for hints of their financial transactions.

The only factor that favours looking into social media is probably the ease of doing it. It would be unwise to assume that people with wealth disproportionate to their known sources of income will all flaunt it over social media sites. There are many who post photos of items they may aspire to own.

If such posts can land a person under the taxmen’s scanner, it would not only be unfortunate and uncomfortable but a highly inappropriate method to waste official time, energy and resources at the cost of taxpayers’ money.

There is no saying how the data mined by the income tax department could be used in future. Other departments — some of which may already be accessing such data without the knowledge of users — would be emboldened to further exploit data and even meddle with the lives of people.

The government must understand, and quickly, that it is putting lives of people at great risk by officially allowing access to their private online spaces. While it may be argued that anything that a person posts or does online cannot be entirely private, the fact that the internet used to be a place which afforded such a space should not be forgotten.

There is proof today that companies such as Google, as they admit themselves, are using data people generate as a result of their browsing habits. These bits and pieces of information are being put together and used in different ways, possibly even misused.

At the most basic level one would notice that if one does Google searches of one particular subject, the suggestions that Google would provide them from then on would revolve around similar subjects considering them the user’s preferences. There is no gainsaying that search giants such as Google are already clandestinely keeping watch on all internet interactions of its users.

At least one private bank in India is already tuned into social media activities of its customers for it to find better ways to serve them. All such moves come at the cost of the privacy of people. Excessive reliance on social media to dig up truths may not yield genuine results as interactions on such sites need to be, more often than not, taken with a pinch of salt.

With increased state surveillance, there are enough smart people who would not only stay away from SocMed but may also waylay government departments and make them drive up blind alleys all of which could be at great costs to the state exchequer.

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