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Cobrapost sting on Paytm: Can user data with tech firms ever be considered safe?


The adage says that ‘set your own house in order before pointing a finger at others’. It was probably never truer for the India startup ecosystem as one of its biggest stars, Paytm’s Vijay Shekhar Sharma, finds himself in the cross-sights of public scrutiny after the Cobrapost sting on the firm.

Sharma, who has been in the news recently for his strong criticism of Facebook and WhatsApp over their handling and control over the financial data of their users in India through their fintech plays. However, now his own company finds itself facing precisely the same accusations, besides loud criticism from its users following the sting.

In the 13 minutes long video (link), Sharma’s sibling Ajay Shekhar Sharma and Sudhanshu Gupta ( both senior VP’s at  Paytm) were seemingly ready to push the ‘Hindutva agenda’ for a deal involving large budget from the sting operator. Surprisingly, Ajay is also seen and heard acknowledging an instance of data sharing on request of Prime Minister Office (PMO) during the video.

Also read: Paytm’s boss VSS calls Facebook, ‘the evilest company in the world’

According to him, the PMO had requested Paytm users data in Kashmir when the valley was rife with stone pelting campaigns against the armed forces. The revelations raise serious concern over the company’s integrity and its commitment to the data privacy of its users.

While we don’t know on what terms Paytm had shared data with the PMO, one thing is clear- new age tech-oriented startups have no respect and accountability for guarding users data.

In fact, such disrespect towards securing data is not a new thing. Almost all telecom companies explicitly share data with banks and financial institution to recover debt from borrowers. Meanwhile, the intensity of data leaks is profound with tech companies such as Paytm dealing with financial information now, and collecting an ever increasing record and history of its users’ transactions and behaviour.

With the advent of Aadhaar, privacy over data is being fiercely debated by activists and intellectuals. However, the debate sadly is limited to a small but aware group of citizens, frequently derided as ‘elite’ by the detractors. And, the reason is simple – a large population of this country doesn’t realise the magnitude of the impact of data leaks by Aadhaar and tech companies.

Forget about rural India and uneducated population base, millennials and educated folks in tier I cities don’t see any problem if their data is being compromised by the government through Aadhaar and tech companies such as Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and Paytm amongst others.

Consider the impact when  Facebook was confirmed to have shared data for millions of its users through Cambridge Analytica, even unknowingly, as the firm claimed. However, a large section of social networking users in the country isn’t concerned or even aware of such leaks.

Awareness and strong law to protect users data from emerging beasts (tech companies) are need of the hour. Given that the communication modes of country’s population has increasingly become Facebook, Google, WhatsApp, and Paytm oriented, demand for strong legal remedies for data privacy is imminent.

Last but not the least, Paytm is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many tech companies who have been compromising users data in the absence of defined regulation. In fact, the business of data collection by fraudulent means and selling them off to the highest bidder is practically a business model today. Witness the mania among all sorts of unrelated firms to collect Aadhaar data, something that has thankfully faced a strong push back, thanks to the efforts of aware citizens.

Currently, a majority of fintech plays in India is all about collecting basic as well as crucial financial data. Sadly, such companies won’t hesitate in compromising or selling users data to third parties.

The Cobrapost sting is an alarm to all such companies. Please, start respecting users data or else, sooner than the later, be ready to face the ire of customers and the court.

“Jaani jinke ghar sheeshe ke hote hai wo dusro pe patther nahi phekte”.

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