In a packed visit to India this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella first went to Bengaluru where he met with Flipkart co-founder Binny Bansal, and announced that the e-commerce company will be exclusively using Microsoft's cloud platform, and also Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, with whom he talked about Aadhaar and the India Stack. Next, in Delhi, Nadella met Union IT and Electronics Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad where the two talked about the DigiGaon initiative. Then finally, in Mumbai, Nadella spoke at Microsoft's Future Decoded conference, where he talked about Skype Lite with Aadhaar integration, the skills-training program Project Sangam, and also productivity tool Kaizala which is being used by the AP government, Niti Ayog, and others.
Although Nadella talked about artificial intelligence as the "third runtime" - the other two being the browser and the OS - most of the vision he unveiled for a digitally transformed India centred around the idea of people using their personal data to their benefit.
"This is something that I had not properly put into words until I spoke to Nandan [Nilekani], but every Indian should be empowered by their own data," Nadella explained.
We've been hearing Indian companies and others talk about building products that make use of the India Stack, but for the most part, we've seen offerings that have some sort of government backing - such as the UPI-based BHIM app, which was made by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI).
Speaking in Bengaluru, Nadella had mentioned that he was keen to see Microsoft's services making use of the India Stack, and integrate it with various products. "Imagine if you could log into a computer using your Aadhaar," Nadella said.
What does Aadhaar enable?
Based on what Nadella said earlier this week, and some of the stuff that Microsoft has already unveiled, it's clear the Redmond-based company is actually working to make this a reality.
Given its long history in India, Microsoft is an established presence in many government offices, its tools and services deployed around the country. By integrating with Aadhaar, Microsoft can make its offerings even more in tune with the current thinking of the government and this is likely to be useful for the company in a number of scenarios.
For example, let's look at eKYC, one of the India Stack features that has been credited with, among other things, the remarkably fast adoption of Reliance Jio. Skype plus Aadhaar could extend the reach of eKYC even further, allowing for remote KYC over video conferencing; Bhaskar Pramanik, former Chairman of Microsoft India, had earlier talked about the possibility of tele-governance - where you connect to your local government officials via Skype, instead of having perforce to visit their offices every time you need to file a simple document or any other similar action.
The DIGILocker would further extend the possibilities, allowing you to get electronic copies of all documents, making it possible to actually carry out official business virtually.
Privacy a concern
Many people have pointed out a number of privacy concerns around Aadhaar. The Aadhaar database is criticised by academics and civil rights experts because of a lack of laws that would deliver transparency, and protect the peoples' privacy.
As of now, there are not enough legal safeguards to prevent surveillance using the data collection abilities of Aadhar. Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access, an international digital rights organisation, earlier said the proposed Indian law lacked the transparency and oversight safeguards found in Europe or the United States, which last year reformed its bulk telephone surveillance programme.
Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bengaluru-based Centre for Internet and Society, has spoken about the risks of storing biometrics for almost every Indian citizen in a central repository that can be compromised.
"Maintaining a central database is akin to getting the keys of every house in Delhi and storing them at a central police station," Abraham has earlier said. "It is very easy to capture iris data of any individual with the use of next generation cameras. Imagine a situation where the police is secretly capturing the iris data of protesters and then identifying them through their biometric records."
As more private companies start to make use of the India Stack, it will dramatically increase the amount of data being collected. If Aadhaar is used as an identity for finance, health, and other services, then it builds a comprehensive picture of the user beyond the data that the Aadhaar registration process itself captures.
As Microsoft Services CTO Norm Judah mentioned on Tuesday, we live in an age of data economy. This will see companies exchanging data on their customers with each other and through wider networks - and while there are a number of benefits to be accrued, the potential for misuse can also only grow.
Disclosure: Microsoft sponsored the correspondent's flights and hotel for the trip to Mumbai.