Technology & National Security Reflection Series Paper 13: Flipping the Narrative on Data Localisation and National Security

Romit Kohli*

About the Author: The author is a fifth year student of the B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) programme at the National Law University, Delhi.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law. This post was written in Summer, 2021. Therefore, it does not reflect recent policy developments in the field of data governance and data protection such as the December 2021 publication of the Joint Parliamentary Committee Report and its proposed Data Protection Bill, 2021.

I. Introduction

Countries all over the world are seeking to preserve and strengthen their cyber-sovereignty in various ways. One popular mechanism for the same is labelled with the nebulous phrase ‘data localisation’. Data localisation refers to requirements imposed by countries which necessitate the physical storage of data within their own national boundaries. However, the degree of data localisation varies across jurisdictions. At one end of the spectrum, we have ‘controlled localisation’ that favours the free-flow of data across borders, subject to only mild restrictions.  A prominent example of controlled localisation is the European Union’s (“EU”) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). At the other end of the spectrum, we have jurisdictions like China which impose much stricter localisation requirements on businesses operating within their national boundaries.

In India data localisation has become a significant policy issue over the last few years. Various government documents have urged lawmakers to introduce a robust framework for data localisation in India. The seminal policy document in this regard is the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee report, which provided the basis for the Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019.This bill proposed a framework which would result in a significant economy-wide shift in India’s data localisation practices. At the same time, various government departments have sought to implement sector-specific data localisation requirements with different levels of success.

This blog post argues that far from being a facilitator of national security, data localisation measures may present newer threats to national security in their implementation. We seek to establish this in three steps. First, we analyse the link between India’s national security concerns and the associated objectives of data localisation. This analysis demonstrates that the mainstream narrative regarding the link between national security and data localisation is inherently flawed. Thereafter, we discuss the impact of data localisation on the economic growth objective, arguing that India’s localisation mandate fails to consider certain unintended consequences of data localisation which restrict the growth of the Indian economy. Lastly, the article argues how this adverse impact on economic growth poses a threat to India’s national security, which requires us to adopt a  more holistic outlook of what constitutes national security. 

Image by World Bank Photo Collection’s Photostream. Copyrighted under CC BY 2.0.

II. The Mainstream Narrative

The Srikrishna Committee report underscores national security concerns as a basis for two distinct policy objectives supporting the introduction of data localisation measures. First, the report refers to the need for law enforcement agencies to have access to data which is held and controlled by data fiduciaries, stating that such access is essential for ‘… effectively [securing] national security and public safety…’ since it facilitates the detection of crime and the process of evidence gathering in general (Emphasis Added). However, experts argue that such an approach is ‘… unlikely to help India achieve objectives that actually require access to data’. Instead, the government’s objectives would be better-served by resorting to light-touch localisation requirements, such as mandating the storage of local copies of data in India while still allowing the data to be processed globally. They propose complementing these domestic measures with negotiations towards bilateral and multilateral frameworks for cross-border access to data.

Second, the report states that the prevention of foreign surveillance is ‘critical to India’s national security interests’ due to the lack of democratic oversight that can be exercised over such a process (Emphasis Added). However, we believe that data localisation fails as an effective policy measure to address this problem because notwithstanding the requirements imposed by data localisation policies, foreign governments can access locally stored data through extra-territorial means, including the use of malware and gaining the assistance of domestic entities. What is required,, is a more nuanced and well-thought-out solution which leverages the power of sophisticated data security tools. 

The above analysis demonstrates that the objectives linked to national security in India’s data localisation policy can be better served through other means. Accordingly, the mainstream narrative which seeks to paint data localisation as a method of preserving national security in the sense of cyber or data security is flawed. 

III. The (Unintended) Impact on the Indian Economy

The Srikrishna Committee Report ostensibly refers to the ‘… positive impact of server localisation on creation of digital infrastructure and digital industry’. Although there is no disputing the impact of the digital economy on the growth of various industries generally, the report ignores the fact that such growth has been fuelled by the free flow of cross-border data. Further, the Srikrishna Committee Report fails to consider the costs imposed by mandatory data localisation requirements on businesses which will be forced to forgo the liberty of storing their data in the most cost-effective way possible. These costs will be shifted onto unsuspecting Indian consumers. 

The results of three seminal studies help illustrate the potential impact of data localisation on the Indian economy. The first study, which aimed at quantifying the loss that data localisation might cause to the economy, found that mandatory localisation requirements would reduce India’s GDP by almost 1% and that ‘… any gains stemming from data localisation are too small to outweigh losses in terms of welfare and output in the general economy’. A second study examined the impact of data localisation on individual businesses and found that due to a lack of data centres in India, such requirements would impose a 30-60% increase in operating costs on such businesses, who would be forced to store their data on local servers. The last study analysed the sector-specific impact of localisation, quantifying the loss in total factor productivity at approximately 1.35% for the communications sector, 0.5% for the business services sector, and 0.2% for the financial sector. More recent articles have also examined the prejudicial impact of data localisation on Indian start-ups, the Indian IT sector, the cyber vulnerability of small and medium enterprises, and India’s Ease of Doing Business ranking. 

At this point, it also becomes important to address a common argument relied upon by proponents of data localisation, which is the fact that localisation boosts local employment, particularly for the computer hardware and software industries. Although attractive on a prima facie level, this argument has been rebutted by researchers on two grounds. First, while localisation might lead to the creation of more data centres in India, the majority of the capital goods needed for such creation will nonetheless be imported from foreign suppliers. Second, while the construction of these centres might generate employment for construction workers at a preliminary stage, their actual functioning will fail to generate substantial employment due to the nature of skilled work involved. 

The primary lesson to be drawn from this analysis is that data localisation will adversely impact the growth of the Indian economy—a lesson that seems to have been ignored by the Srikrishna Committee report. Further, when discussing the impact of data localisation on economic growth in India, the report makes no reference to national security. We believe that this compartmentalisation of economic growth and national security as unrelated notions reflects an inherently myopic view of the latter. 

IV. Towards a Novel Narrative

National security is a relative concept—it means different things to different people in different jurisdictions and socio-economic contexts. At the same time, a noticeable trend vis-à-vis this relative concept is that various countries have started incorporating the non-traditional factor of economic growth in their conceptions of national security. This is because the economy and national security are inextricably linked, with several interconnections and feedback loops. 

Although the Indian government has made no explicit declaration in this regard, academic commentary has sought to characterise India’s economic slowdown as a national security concern in the past. We believe that this characterisation is accurate since India is a relatively low-income country and therefore, its national security strategy will necessarily depend upon the state of its economy. Further, although there have been objections surrounding a dismal defence-to-GDP ratio in India, it is believed that these objections are based on ‘trivial arithmetic’. This is because the more appropriate way of remedying the current situation is by concentrating policy efforts on increasing India’s GDP and accelerating economic growth, rather than lamenting low spends on defence. 

This goal, however, requires an upgradation of India’s national security architecture. While the nuances of this reform fall outside the precise scope of this blog post, any comprehensive reform will necessarily require a change in how Indian policymakers view the notion of national security. These policymakers must realise that economic growth underpins our national security concerns and consequently, it is a factor which must not be neglected.

This notion of national security must be used by Indian policymakers to examine the economic viability of introducing any new law, including the localisation mandate. When seen through this broader lens, it becomes clear that the adverse economic impact of data localisation policies will harm India’s national security by inter alia increasing the costs of doing business in India, reducing the GDP, and prejudicing the interests of Indian start-ups and the booming Indian IT sector. 

V. Conclusion

This blog post has attempted to present the link between data localisation and national security in a different light. This has been done by bringing the oft-ignored consequences of data localisation on the Indian economy to the forefront of academic debate. At the center of the article’s analysis lies an appeal to Indian policymakers to examine the notion of national security through a wider lens and consequently rethink their flawed approach of addressing national security concerns through a localisation mandate. This, in turn, will ensure sustained economic growth and provide India with the technological advantage it necessarily requires for preserving its national interests.  

*Views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.