Issue 6

ContraPoints by Natalie Wynn

The above image is a still from the ContraPoints video “Canceling”

On her Youtube channel ContraPoints, Natalie Wynn explores several pertinent questions in the field of ethics, politics and gender. She combines well-researched arguments with her unique brand of dark humour, to create entertaining and informative videos that keep you hooked. By explaining all points of view in a debate, no matter how controversial or different it may be from her own political standing, she gives her audience a complete picture of an issue. By the end of every video, you’re left with a much better understanding of the nuances of an issue, while also being thoroughly entertained.

To start out with, she has a great video on ‘cancel culture’. You can also check out her videos Gender Critical (which helps one understand the debate around J K Rowling’s recent controversy) and Incels.

Issue 6

Book Review: How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

In How To Make The World Add Up, Tim Harford, presenter of BBC’s radio show More or Less and an economist by training, writes a compelling case for the field of statistics. Through the course of the book, Harford explores how statistics can help us understand the world around us in clear and simple ways. He also addresses scepticism about statistics, and tells us why it shouldn’t be dismissed as a means of masking lies and spreading misinformation. 

Harford tells us ten simple rules that we can follow, to better understand the facts and numbers that are presented to us through media. He uses several relevant anecdotes, from the pages of history books to the ongoing pandemic, to tell us how and why we should dig deeper into the information that we receive. Throughout the ten rules and the book, there exists a recurring theme – to be curious. Whether it’s rule 1, that asks us to pause and consider our emotional reaction to a piece of news, or rule 4, that prods us to look for comparisons and context to put a claim into perspective, Harford ultimately urges us to be smartly curious about everything we consume. 

While the book does not draw on technicalities from the field of statistics (don’t worry, there are no mentions of p-value or R-squared here!) it urges the lay reader to consider what statistics professors regularly tell their students. For instance, rule 3 asks us to reflect on the labels of different data components, in newspaper data diagrams and academic papers alike. Similarly, rule 5 explains why looking at the source of data collection (and consequently, the motives and limitations of the data collectors) is necessary. While these rules are mostly straightforward, they are rarely followed by consumers of media. Harford recognises that it is not feasible to ask a reader to judge all the media that they consume through these ten rules. Instead, he proposes the use of these rules as a tool to form a “preliminary assessment” of a news source. If there is no effort made by the author to define terms or give the source of the data, there may be a reason to doubt their claims. At the very least, it should urge you to do a quick Google search to validate the information. The simplicity of these rules can help us easily dig deep into dubious claims made on our social media newsfeeds and television news channels.

The book also delves into specific problems around us, such as algorithmic bias and political polarisation, and tells us how we can figure a way out of it. Without giving too much away, Harford asks readers to appeal to their curiosity to question the types of media they choose to consume and believe in. While statistics might help us establish a correlation between a person’s political belief and the kinds of news channels they follow, Harford gives us a way out of our echo chambers. As he explains in rule 6, we need to develop a skill to recognise what data is being obfuscated or left out in the articles we read and the videos we watch. If we put our political beliefs on pause for a while and analyse our news sources, Harford believes we might come away with more information than we possessed before.

Harford also uses several interesting anecdotes throughout the book to keep the reader engaged. These include controversial studies, where statistics played an important role in establishing credibility. One such study links smoking cigarettes to lung cancer – a contentious claim made by Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill in 1954. Harford explores how the response by the tobacco lobbyists is a tactic that is used by several politicians: namely, raising doubts about the statistical procedures used in the study. The author helps the reader realise the importance of statistics in understanding consequential matters around us by providing many such case studies.

Overall, the book is a relevant and useful read in a time when we are constantly bombarded with more numbers and data analyses than we know what to do with. Harford urges us to rethink the bad name that statistics has been given over the years––a way to come up with dubious studies and clickbait news headlines––and consider it as a magical way of breaking down the hordes of incomprehensible numbers we receive in everyday media. Over time, if we manage to apply even a few rules out of the given ten to the media we consume, we might be able to better understand the nuances and complexities packed in the underlying research. In this manner, the book lives up to its name and truly helps make the world add up.

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 5

Dosa: A Culinary Marvel

The Dosa is a culinary gift from South Indian cuisine that has become a popular breakfast snack all across India. Although the dish has been gaining global popularity for a while, when a video of Kamala Harris (before she became the Vice President of the United States) and American actress Mindy Kaling making Masala Dosa emerged on social media, the dish received a lot of attention. The desi roots of the two women have now put the Dosa under a much deserved global spotlight. 

Across the planet, the origin of traditional dishes is often contested. The Dosa too faces a similar dilemma. While some believe the version presented by historian P. Thankappan Nair, who claims that the Dosa originated from the town of Udupi located in the Indian state of Karnataka, there are others who believe the claims made by food historian K.T. Achaya. According to him, Tamil Nadu was the birthplace of Dosai because instances of the dish were found in Sangam literature (ancient Tamil literature) dating back to 1st century AD. 

Although debates about the origin continue to persist, what most can agree upon is that the Dosa is not similar to a pancake or crepe. Many have tried to explain the dish by claiming it to be a type of “South Indian” pancake or crepe but true Dosa enthusiasts know that it is one of those dishes that can’t be compared to an existing one. Only once you devour a Dosa will you realise that it has a unique description of its own. 

In India, there are many varieties of the Dosa: Ghee Dosa, Rava Dosa, Benne Dosa, Mysore Masala Dosa, Ragi Dosa, Neer Dosa, Plain Dosa, and the list goes on. But the most popular of them all is the Masala Dosa. In the traditional process of making this Dosa, a fermented batter, made of rice, dal and fenugreek seeds, is scooped with a deep bowl ladle and is poured on a hot plate. Before pouring, the hot plate is sprinkled with water. Once the water sizzles off, the batter is spread on the hot plate spiralling outwards in a circular motion. Oil is then drizzled on the Dosa. Many people prefer smearing the Dosa with a spicy red chutney before topping it with the Masala, which is made of semi-mashed potatoes sauteed with several herbs and spices. The Dosa is ready once it turns golden-brown and the edges start to lift off. It is served with Sambar and Coconut Chutney. 

In Southern India, although you can find the Masala Dosa in almost any Dosa joint, each state enjoys its own set of Dosa hotspots that have a unique version of the Masala Dosa. In Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka, one such hotspot is Shri Sagar, popularly known as Central Tiffin Room (CTR). Located in the corner of a street in Malleshwaram, CTR was founded in the 1920s and has been feeding the souls of generations of Bangaloreans. Their in-house special Benne Masala Dosa is a butter-laden Masala Dosa that is served with coconut and mint chutney. While the place would earlier be crowded with waiting-lines extending across the road, the sales have now been severely impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to 25-year old Ganesh Sanjeeva Poojara, who manages the place with his elder brother Sandesh, “Since people have stopped coming out due to the pandemic, we have seen a decrease in footfall by around 60-65 per cent during the initial days of the lockdown. Although we do have orders coming in from Zomato (a food delivery service), even now, footfall has increased only by around 5-8 per cent. Comparing it to a time before the pandemic, we are currently running just at 30 per cent.”

Ganesh Poojara standing at the entrance of Shri Sagar – Central Tiffin Roon (CTR), Malleshwaram, Bengaluru, Karnataka.

Reception desk where Zomato delivery men come to pick up food orders.

Menu of CTR, written in Kannada, hanging on a wall.

Two staff members standing by the railing, waiting for orders to come in.

Two plates of Benne Masala Dosa making their way out of the kitchen.

“After the Coronavirus outbreak in March, this is the first time we have come. We came to Bangalore in 2001, since then we have been coming here every month. We get our guests here too”, said Dinesh and Shantini Rao. 

A man enjoying his Dosa on a Monday morning by the window.

A table with two plates of Benne Masala Dosa and a plate of Idli-Vada.
The Dosas at CTR are thick and fluffy, yet crispy. An epitome of golden brown achieved by their special benne butter. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 5

Issue V: Editor’s Note

On October 16, Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was beheaded by a Muslim man in Paris, France, over his use of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on the freedom of speech. On October 29, three church goers were also stabbed to death by a Tunisian man in Nice. These attacks have elicited a sharp response from the French President Emmanuel Macron who criticized not just the perpetrators, but Islam as a whole. Macron said that Islam is in a crisis around the world and also declared war on what he calls “Islamist separatism” in France. Macron also defended the rights of those who wish to satirize the Prophet. This incident is emblematic of the rising tensions between French secularism and multiculturalism. In an attempt to further understand the French ‘laïcité’, Shrishti Agrawal explores the historical context within which it was conceived and also comments on its contemporary relevance. 

The comments by President Macron have been received with widespread criticism by leaders of Muslim majority countries like Turkey and Pakistan. Turkish President Erdogan also went far enough to question Macron’s mental health. Amidst the outrage, the Indian External Affairs Ministry came in defense of France and Macron, condemning both the terrorist attacks and the use of unacceptable language against the President. Many Indians also supported Macron on Twitter as #IStandWithFrance trended. Although these tweets supported the upholding of the freedom of speech and the denouncing of terrorism, it is hard to not read them as coded Islamophobia. 

A quick look at India’s record on freedom of speech and violence renders the support hypocritical. Indian artist, M. F. Husain was famously forced to go into exile for his depictions of Indian goddesses in the nude. Statements denouncing violence were absent when M. M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were killed for hurting Hindu sentiments. There have been multiple instances of mob lynchings over suspected beef consumption. Journalists and activists like Prashant Kanojia, Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita are imprisoned for criticising the government. Recently, the Netflix series “A Suitable Boy” also came under attack for depicting an interfaith relationship.

As Macron prepares to present a plan for Muslim integration to the French parliament, the BJP is also set to introduce Islamophobic laws. Various BJP ruled states in India have vowed to create strict laws against “love jihad”, an alleged tactic used by Muslim men to convert Hindu women by marriage. Professor P. V. Barua, in his article, asks whether such a law is possible. 

In a context where globalisation is fuelling religious polarisation, the UAE might be an exception. Karantaj Singh in his article on the recent changes in UAE’s family law, explores how a predominantly Muslim nation, is updating its family laws in response to its increasingly globalised and diverse society. 

This issue is our attempt to document a few ways in which we can analyse the events happening around us. Hopefully it encourages our readers to reflect and assess for themselves what the world needs working on.

– Nirvik Thapa, Pravish Agnihotri and Samyukta Prabhu

Issue 5

The Mandalorian

Almost a year back, the internet exploded with memes of ‘The Child’, famously known as Baby Yoda. The tiny green being, deriving its resemblance from the infamous Jedi Master Yoda, is a character from the first live-action Star Wars series, The Mandalorian. Streaming exclusively on Disney+, the series created by Jon Favreau is centered around the action-packed journey of a skillful bounty hunter (played by Pedro Pascal) and The Child. 

While The Mandalorian manages to successfully incorporate the longings of the Star Wars universe developed by George Lucas, the creative flair visible throughout the series sets itself apart. The series is placed five years after the fall of the Empire in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) and 25 years before the return of the First Order in Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

The Mandalorian begins with the introduction of a bold bounty hunter who wears heavy traditional armour, belonging to the clan of Mandalorians. The then nameless hunter, often called Mando, scours the Outer Rim of the Star Wars galaxy in his prized gunship and live-in quarters, the Razor Crest. One of his bounty missions leads him to cross paths with The Child, marking the beginning of their journey. Season one is filled with striking visuals as it explores uncharted territories of the Star Wars universe. Each episode thickens the larger plot in just the right amounts. The season finale leaves viewers counting each day in anticipation of the release of the next season. 

The newly released season two of The Mandalorian continues the inter-galactic journey of Mando and The Child. Mando is tasked to find and deliver The Child to his Jedi home. Even though only four episodes have released till now, it is evident that the season is going to be as action-packed as the first. 

Filled with action and adventure in some of the most visually compelling places, The Mandalorian is a must-watch. In fact, it is worthy of rewatching not once, but multiple times. If you are someone who hasn’t seen the show before, wait for the entire second season to release and binge away. 

Issue 5

Understanding the French Principle of Laïcité

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year old teacher was brutally beheaded in northern Paris outside his school. Days before his beheading, Paty had been receiving online death threats for showing his students controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed which were first published in Denmark and then reproduced by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In France, the right to offend has always existed. Thus, the horrific murder of Paty was viewed as a violation of these rights that allow the people of France to commit acts that offend religion. The incident sent shockwaves across France because it was also viewed as an attack on education and education lies at the heart of what it means to be French. The outrage created swells of demonstrations and fueled deliberations over the longstanding French notion of secularism.

To understand the notion of secularism in France, it is necessary to examine the French principle of laïcité, under which the state is obliged to adopt a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs. Personal laws, inherent in every religion, find no place in the French Constitution. Thus, there is complete isolation of religion from the public sphere. While the wearing of overt religious symbols is not allowed either in the civil services or public spaces like government hospitals, post offices and government schools, there is complete freedom to exercise religion in the private realm. People are free to attend any religious institution and follow any religious norm as long as they do so in private spaces.

This notion of laïcité, where the state adopts a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs, was not inherent to the French system of governance. A great deal of historical struggle and fighting led to the acceptance of laïcité as a principle. It is important to recognize that religion lies at the heart of all the wars in France.

Between 1562 and 1598, the French witnessed the Wars of Religion. It was a series of nine bloody wars fought between two factions of the same religion, Catholics and Protestants.

Then, from 1789 to 1799, during the French Revolution, Louis XVI, who had exercised complete control of France between 1661 and 1715, was overthrown. A National Constituent Assembly was formed and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. This declaration was important for France because it established individual rights that were protected by law. The revolutionaries declared the French Republic and stripped away special powers of the Catholic Church in an attempt to tame the Church that had enjoyed centuries of control. For the first time, the Jews, who were an outlawed community, were finally allowed to own property. In 1791, the first French Constitution was adopted and introduced the idea of freedom of religion in the land. The freedom to practice different faiths was allowed.

Between 1799 and 1905, a progressive dilution of the powers of the Catholic Church took place in post-revolutionary France. During this period, the Jules Ferry Laws were established. Catholic clerics were not allowed to infiltrate schools by becoming teachers. Thus, the laws ensured secularity in the schools of France. The systematic chipping away of the powers from the Church eventually led to the creation of secular laws in France.  

Finally, in 1905, the French law, on the separation of the Church and the State was introduced. It was based on three ideas: neutrality of the State, freedom of religious exercise and public powers related to the Church. This means that while the State maintains neutrality, it continues to exercise discretionary powers that allow it to intervene in religious matters. This was the period when the French notion of secularism emerged and the principle of laïcité was established.

When the law came into force, the State declared that the citizens of France would be recognised independent of their religious or ethnic background. Although initially, the immigrants and minority communities of the country did not face issues of discrimination, instances of everyday racism increased after the 1970s.

In the post-war era, there was a steep decline in manpower in France. Thus, France invited male immigrants from many countries to work in the booming industries of the State. While France had existing immigrants from neighbouring countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, for the first time, this wave of immigrants also included people from non-White countries like Northern Africa, namely Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is widespread. Leaving their families behind, due to restrictions from the French state, these immigrants lived in poor suburban communities where instances of racism and discrimination were not that widespread.

Problems started emerging during the 1970s economic downturn. Just like most countries, France was also severely impacted by the 1973 oil crisis. This led to the closing of several factories in France. By this time, the French state had reunited the immigrants with their families. Living in the fringes of society, the immigrants suffered due to increasing unemployment and the burden to feed their families. The immigrants from Europe and other white Caucasian countries were able to merge into a predominantly Judeo-Christian France. Physical differences, like the colour of one’s skin, made it difficult for the African immigrants (mostly Muslim) to assimilate into society. Communities of immigrant workers became increasingly isolated and the instances of everyday discrimination started becoming more prominent.

Although under laïcité, rights are given to every French person, these rules were made at a time when the country did not experience a wave of non-white immigrants. Religious diversity was not prominent in 1905. Assimilation of North African communities who came to live in France and the French-born Muslims, proved to be difficult. Adding to this, several disputes started arising with issues of religious freedom and the notion of laïcité.

In 1989, tense debates started growing on the wearing of overt religious symbols in France after three Muslim girls were suspended from a public school upon refusing to remove their headscarves. After years of debate, the 2004 law which banned “the wearing of symbols and apparel by which a student conspicuously expresses religious affiliation in public schools”, was passed by the French parliament. The Jewish skullcap, Christian crosses and the Hijab, all religious symbols we banned. Then in 2010, a law was passed prohibiting the concealment of the face in public, thus banning clothes like the niqab. Such laws, which have created hostility between the Muslims and the French State have only intensified due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks in France by radical-militant Islamists.  

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine that produces cartoons and jokes about religious heads who promote blind belief, pokes fun at obscure existing norms and calls out forms of absurdity. After the 2015 attacks on the magazine by terrorists of militant Islam and al-Qaeda, people increasingly began looking at Islam as a religion that promotes violence, contributing to the ever-growing Islamophobia in the country.

While the principle of laïcité was intended to instill secularism, it was created at a time when the French Constitution did not need to worry about the practices of a diverse range of religions. Although these controversial laws apply to all religions, the last few years have shifted the focus of discourse to Islamic practices. The complete removal of religion from public spaces may have worked in the past, but growing religious and cultural tensions have raised many questions with regards to the French notion of laïcité. Till what extent is the State willing to go, to maintain its principle of laïcité? If a community feels marginalized, should the state alter its principles?

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


Humans v. AI: How automated decision making is a game changer for legal liability

The Trolley Problem, like many thought experiments, has a pervasive shelf life. There is little to add to its 50-year-old documented history in and outside classrooms—except to add a footnote about its strange popularity in autonomous vehicle circles. This is evidenced by its crowdsourced avatar dubbed ‘Moral Machine’, that has been an inspiration to computer scientists and engineers within the Silicon Valley counter culture. 

Fiercely debated and disavowed by philosophers, ethicists and behavioural psychologists, it seems, we begin exactly where the trolley problem ends—the complexity of the real-time decision making and messy morality in the aftermath of the loss of a human life. The trolley problem isn’t theoretical anymore and neither are the algorithms that sought to adapt it to the digital age.

Our case in point—In 2018, Silicon Valley awoke to an autonomous Uber killing a 49-year-old pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. As one reporter succinctly summarised—what happens when a two-ton machine, one that is run by an assortment of sensors and computers and makes decisions foreign to human reasoning, comes in contact with the all too human textures of urban life?

A growing demand for and interest in scholarship, at the intersection of law and technology, identifies the immediate and real puzzles for legal systems, the state and tech corporations. The levers pulled by these three key actors will lay much of the groundwork and have the battle lines drawn.

The State and Digital Governance 

A public-private partnership paradigm forms much of the situational context of the testing and adoption of autonomous vehicles in cars and other cyber-physical systems. When we consider the question of state responsibility or even liability in the aftermath of crashes in testing zones or general roll out areas, this partnership between the state and tech corporations is increasingly transforming governance and producing new modes of surveillance. The question, as Jack Balkin put, is not if there will be a Surveillance State, but who is better suited to lead the Surveillance State? Big Tech is certainly an unprecedented contender. 

New forms of governance are emerging in a transnational zone of ‘legal indistinction’, an operational space bound by legal systems specific to nations but beyond their borders. Here, the Tech Corporation, authorised by the state, exerts influence and dictates norms on issues that range from cybersecurity, surveillance, intellectual property, user privacy and most recently, pandemic contact tracing. In the case of the recent self-driving car crashes, the state liability for allowing autonomous cars without sufficient oversight is unlikely to fly as a legal standard outside of issues of faulty state-built infrastructure. Only a legislative attempt can compensate for the regulatory failure in establishing safety standards or oversight.

The Determination of Legal Liability and Compensation

Over the past decade, legal scholars have described the situation of ‘identifying legal liability for autonomous decision-making software powered vehicles’ to be a grey area where the law runs out. This typically creates room for courts to consider questions of legal liability, compensation and criminal action, while creating new legal tests and establishing precedent. However, the other key trend in the legal responses in autonomous vehicle crashes reveals the use of the doctrine of product liability instead of vehicular negligence in cases featuring damage caused by autonomous vehicles. What is clear to researchers working at the intersection of law and technology, is that the current trend of moving cases involving autonomous vehicle collisions away from criminal liability and courts, and towards civil suits and settlements, will prove to be a missed opportunity. This is because it can potentially chip away at the ability of courts to adjudicate or set new precedent. It also makes the debate on ‘product liability’ a fierce contest studied by both legal scholars and economists. Thus, there is a trade-off between allowing these cases to be heard in court, chipping away at the significant role legal systems could potentially play while regulators play catch up, and the project to raise public knowledge and civil society awareness about autonomous decision making is put at risk. 

Scholars like Bryan Smith point out that a shift from the doctrine of vehicular negligence to ‘product liability’ in the short run advances the prevention of injury and the compensation of victims, while keeping the calculations of compensation fairly private between the tech companies and any human victims. In an economic context, the shift to ‘producer’s responsibility’ is a debate on its own, whether it’s regulating the drivers, self-driving manufacturer, lawmakers or the car itself! 

Legal protections and tech corporations

A culture of codified secrecy is hardly new to the corporate form. A direct line can be traced from Wall Street to Silicon Valley and by extension between the legal personhood afforded to Big Banks and Big Tech. It is interesting to think about the distinctions drawn between financial and personal information in the digital age. The contrast almost vanishes when we consider Big Tech and its successful campaign as the dominant corporate form, surpassing even Big Banks in their ability to amass information and then bundling it so all information becomes inherently financial in our new digitally enabled surveillance paradigm. 

In the age of algorithms, a behind the scenes look into the secretive and complex business models, practices and interfaces of leading tech platforms are critical both for users and governments. These are referred to as ‘Black Box Systems’ precisely because they enhance the legal and real secrecy afforded by algorithms and automated systems to tech companies. They become a blind spot to both regulators and consumers at large.  Algorithms, which are largely covered by existing intellectual property standards, have also revived interest in property rights for the digital age. 

More and more predictive algorithms are impacting every aspect of our lives. The paucity of enforcement activity, requiring moral justification and rationale, makes it harder to track illegal or ethical discrimination carried out during self-driver crashes. Frank Pasquale highlighted how predictive algorithms mine personal information to make guesses about individuals’ likely actions and risks. Thus, it becomes imperative to explore the consequences to human values of fairness and justice, when scoring machines make judgments about individuals in order to avoid arbitrary and discriminatory ways.

An unlikely but growing collaboration between independent researchers, former/current Big Tech employees, legal and civil rights activists, has been instrumental in making the implications of automated decision making public knowledge. This offers critical momentum for regulators and legal systems as they play catch up to Big Tech’s bullish attempts to drive both the adoption and research into cyber-physical systems. Most recently, Amazon’s controversial facial recognition software and the company’s aggressive campaign for adoption by law enforcement came under scrutiny by several independent AI researchers, who detailed the higher error rates in identifying women of colour. 

While shaping the future of AI, tech companies’ input is essential, however, they cannot retain absolute power on how their systems impact the society or on how we evaluate the impact morally. In order to boost accountability and transparency, governments need to support independent AI research, create incentives for the industry to cooperate and use that leverage to demand that tech companies share data in properly-protected databases, with access granted to publicly-funded artificial intelligence researchers.

The ‘internet of things’ is growing exponentially, generating unprecedented volumes of data. With autonomous vehicles hitting the roads in increasing numbers and lives at stake, it is necessary to ensure that the liable party is held accountable when things go utterly wrong. The goal of economists, lawyers and policymakers alike then, would be to come up with a ‘pareto optimal’ scenario, while assuring that each party involved does not take undue advantage of each other.

Arushi Massey is a research and teaching fellow at the Department of Political Science at Ashoka University. Her research focuses on the digital political economy and questions at the intersection of law and social theory.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


To End or Not to End Privacy

Imagine, if you will, a murder. Some letters are found, all written in a strange language. In Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” it took Sherlock Holmes to decipher such a script and find the murderer.

Inventing a secret language is rather difficult, except that we now have standardized ways to do it: encryption algorithms. Essentially, we have language-inventing software, which can create different languages based on a secret password. If you know the password, you can translate the language back into plain English. Today’s techniques produce incredibly secure ciphers that would leave even Holmes clueless. 

This has led to governments trying to subvert or weaken cryptography. Inevitably, every time an atrocity occurs, we hear this argument again and again. Donald Trump has stated that the US should be able to “penetrate the Internet and find out exactly where ISIS is and everything about ISIS.” It was perhaps David Cameron who best articulated this sentiment: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people, which even in extremis, with a signed warrant from the home secretary personally, that we cannot read? … are we going to allow a means of communication where it simply isn’t possible to do that? My answer is no, we are not.” The justification, of course, is that these powers are needed by “intelligence agencies and security agencies and policing in order to keep our people safe.”

The “deal”, then, is this: You can communicate securely, as long as you make the encryption easy enough for The Government to decipher. This “easy enough” requirement is currently being enforced by various means, including the infiltration and bribery of companies that produce commercial cryptographic software. Many activists and technologists have written about the ethical problems with having a government that is capable of snooping on all of our communications. I argue that legalising this is not only unethical, but operationally impossible.

I am sure you can already spot the problem — if something is easy enough for one person to decipher, then it is easy enough for many others. You cannot have one and not the other, since our government employees are not magically cleverer than their US, Chinese, or Russian counterparts, or the many cyber-criminals that prowl the internet. Broken security renders us vulnerable to anyone with the expertise, not just some government agencies. Mathematical laws care little for the laws of any country.

A commonly proposed solution is for the government to have some kind of “backdoor,” such as a master key. This is difficult to do, both technically and operationally. Given that we have substantial problems implementing and deploying our current (comparatively simple) systems, shifting to such a complicated new technology would inevitably lead to more security holes.

Even if one government has a master key for a certain set of encryption systems, we still have problems. What if the master key gets stolen? We are artificially introducing a critical weakness — such a key would certainly be a prime target for any adversary, and having the key stolen is not a negligible possibility. Over the past few years, hackers have been able to steal everything from the blueprints of the F-35 fighter jet, to financial data from credit rating agencies, to healthcare data from hospitals. Trusting governments with master keys when they haven’t been able to safeguard their own military technology seems like a terrible idea.

Further, if a criminal knows that the government has a master key to software #420, she’s not going to use it. She’ll find a system with no master key (these, of course, already exist). So, the people suffering from weak encryption are mostly going to be law-abiding citizens, who will now be more vulnerable to hackers.

The global nature of the internet adds yet another layer to this. Other governments are not going to sit around and use compromised (from their point of view) communication systems – they’ll build their own software, probably with their own master keys, and stop trusting software made by residents of other countries, essentially creating import control on software. How would multinational companies secure their data? Would they be required to provide keys to every government in the world, or, perhaps a branch of the UN? The creation of a global body to govern these master keys presents a herculean challenge. Further, nothing prevents the governments from adding their own backdoors to subvert that body as well.

Practically every expert in the field believes that subverting cryptosystems (and the bulk surveillance that inevitably accompanies it) is foolish, immoral, and dangerous.

This is why companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft are supporting stronger encryption. Some people who don’t really understand how encryption works have come up with many good reasons for exceptional access backdoors and opined that regulators and legislators must find a way to provide some privacy while allowing law enforcement access. This won’t work. Yes, there are many good reasons for having backdoors (roll-down windows on airplanes might have many advantages), but the numerous fatal problems that they create should have obviated this discussion long ago. Governments should stop trying to build backdoors and support strong, end-to-end security and privacy.

Debayan Gupta is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Ashoka University, where he teaches a course on security and privacy as well as an introductory programming class. He is also a visiting professor and research affiliate at MIT and MIT-Sloan.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 


How COVID-19 is adding to the existing NPA crisis in India

As described by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), “An asset, including a leased asset, becomes non-performing when it ceases to generate income for the bank.” When banks give out loans to borrowers, these loans are treated as assets. In some instances, when borrowers stop providing interest and other payments for a period of time, banks treat these as NPAs. 

Increasing NPAs burden the financial system and deteriorate the health of banks. As banks stop getting returns from these assets, their profitability is affected. Along with the negative effects on profitability, the loss rate of banks also increases. As the funds of the bank decrease, the future lending capacity of banks is heavily affected. These different events leave banks vulnerable to various unexpected events, namely economic shocks.

Now that the COVID-19 shock is in place, “The level of the NPAs is going to be unprecedented in six months from now if we really recognise the true level of NPAs. We are in trouble and sooner we recognise it, better it is because we really need to deal with the problem,” said Raghuram Rajan at the India Policy Forum in  July earlier this year.

Take a look at the table below that indicates the Gross NPAs of banks from 2016-2019.

Source: Department of supervision, RBI

From the data, we can see that banks had made an overall recovery in 2019 with lower Gross NPAs compared to the previous year. This progression made by banks is now being undone by the pandemic. 

Additionally, the data shows that there is a stark difference between the Gross NPA levels of public and private sector banks. 

Public sector banks (PSBs) have relatively lower capital adequacy compared to private sector banks. PSBs are not efficient at managing their NPA ratios, even the technology used by these banks is not as leveraged compared to private sector banks. Another contributing factor to relatively high levels of Gross NPAs in the PBSs is the vulnerability of these banks to promote certain economic sectors of society due to political pressure

The stabilization of PSBs and restructuring of their financial affairs is essential for the PSBs to absorb the shocks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During times of an economic crisis, testing the resilience of financial institutions becomes imperative for the government to get a ground reality of the situation. Doing this helps the government understand how volatile the market is. Once the assessment is made, governments can then apply relevant reforms to stabilize the financial system. 

To assess the current health of banks in India, stress tests were taken by banks under certain guidelines of the RBI. Though it was known that the results of the tests would be disappointing, they are far worse than expected. Reports show that the Gross NPA ratio of the banking sector is likely to increase from 8.5% in March 2020 to 12.5% by March 2021, or even up to 14.7%, if adequate measures are not taken. While the GNPA ratio of the PSBs is expected to increase from 11.3% in March 2020 to 15.2% by March 2021, the private sector banks are expected to increase from 4.2% in March 2020 to 7.3% by next year. 

We should be extremely worried about high NPA levels as it starts a chain of deteriorating financial events. High NPAs lead to low profitability of banks. The lending capacity of banks as well as their income decreases. Additionally, since the banks are unable to increase their lending, money flow is reduced. To add to this, the confidence that the public has on the banking system is heavily impacted and shareholders start contracting their investments. Thus, the issue of rising NPAs is not just an issue that banks individually face but is an issue that impacts the financial system of the country and in turn the economy.

In an attempt to curb the financial distress caused by the pandemic, the RBI attempted to bless financial borrowers by extending the moratorium on all term loans by six months. Though the moratorium ended on August 31, the government recently announced an extension that allows for a two-year loan moratorium in the case that a borrower’s cash flow has directly been affected by the pandemic. An interest rate cut has also been issued to boost the economy. 

While there is an appraisal that the new monetary policy is accommodative to the plight of the borrowers, it is unlikely that this policy is going to ease the financial burden faced by the banks. The balance sheets of banks may improve, they may gain temporary relief from the pressure caused by NPAs and even increase market liquidity by increasing the amount of money that banks may have in hand, either to invest or to spend. The fact remains that the lending capacity of banks will not improve as the amount of money flowing will remain restricted. People’s spending capacity is not going to improve for a while and even with loan extensions, it remains uncertain whether the NPAs would get converted to profitable assets in the future financial years. 

Before India was struck with the COVID-19 pandemic, the banking sector already faced issues with poor health. Bad loan judgements, ineffective asset management strategies and over-relaxed lending norms have previously contributed to high NPAs of banks. For an emerging economy like India, the road to recovery is going to be a difficult process indeed. While it is imperative for banks to internally re-structure lending processes, the RBI and the government also play an important role in the strengthening of bank systems. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).