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Ethical Data Use Needed as India Embraces Blockchain for Land Records

FILE - An Indian farmer uses a computer to check land records in Ramanagaram, in the southern state of Karnataka, May 26, 2001. Land records in most Indian states date to the colonial era, and most land holdings have uncertain ownership. Fraud is rampant.

As India starts to use blockchain technology for land deals, it must protect the rights of the most vulnerable with policies for the responsible use of big data, analysts said.

At least two Indian states are testing blockchain — a ledger system tracking digital information — to record land deals and bring transparency to a system that is rife with fraud and leaves the poor at risk of eviction.

Putting India's land records on blockchain — the technology behind the bitcoin currency — would greatly increase efficiency, reduce corruption and boost economic growth, experts say.

But fears about the misuse of data persist.

"One of the biggest challenges with respect to big data is the fear of discrimination and profiling based on religion, caste or income level," said Nikhil Narendran, a partner at the law firm Trilegal.

"The government should engage in responsible and ethical big data processing, and have adequate mechanisms to retain ownership and confidentiality," he said in Blockchain for Property, a handbook for its adoption, released Tuesday.

Land records in most Indian states date to the colonial era, and most land holdings have uncertain ownership. Fraud is rampant, and disputes over titles often end up in court.

Torn maps, old disputes

A national land record modernization program, launched in 2008 to survey lands, update records and establish ownership, has been delayed by torn maps and disputes dating back decades.

Blockchain works by creating permanent, public "ledgers" of all transactions, potentially replacing a mass of overlapping records with one simple database.

It enables real-time updates of records, improving efficiency and transparency, and reducing bribes, analysts say.

But there cannot be a complete switch to a blockchain platform, because millions are still not literate and lack access to smartphones and computers, said Ananth Padmanabhan, a fellow at think tank Carnegie India.

"There needs to exist a dual system, that is, an option to use the online services but also the old process of paper documents submission at the government office," he said.

It is also important that the data not be used to profile people or discriminate against them — for instance, denying home loans to people from certain backgrounds, Narendran said.

"If used in a responsible and ethical manner, big data can bring about real change, including in the area of land transactions," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We need a model that is rights based and accountability based, so there are fewer chances of the misuse of data."