India’s New Super App Has a Privacy Problem

On April 7, Ranendra Ojha, a marketing professional in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata was looking forward to installing and using the new super app, Tata Neu. Super apps are umbrella mobile applications under which companies offer a bunch of services. But as soon as Ojha installed and signed up for Tata Neu on his phone number, he was appalled to see that this newly launched app already had three of his old addresses along with his full name—details he never shared with the app.

As he dug further, Ojha realized that the app seemed to have pulled data from the grocery app Big Basket, which Ojha uses frequently. Like Big Basket, Tata Neu is owned by the almost 155-year-old Tata Group. One of India’s largest conglomerates and a household name, the Tata Group sells everything from salt to software and recently forayed into the world of consumer tech through a slew of acquisitions.

“Frankly, I was quite shocked that Tata had picked up my personal details from one of the apps they owned and used it for this new app,” Ojha says. “In effect they have shared my personal details with the whole Tata Group companies without my permission.”

Another user based in the southern Indian city of Bangalore was equally shocked when he saw multiple addresses (including the address of his old home, where he doesn’t live anymore) and his date of birth already preloaded on Tata Neu when he signed up for it using his phone number and a one-time password. What he found more perplexing was that his wife’s Tata Neu also had her old office address, which he says they never used for any purpose. “Personally I am a very big fan of Tata Group, and there is trust when it comes to the Tata brand,” says Naren, who requested to be quoted under a pseudonym, fearing backlash from the company. “But that trust is lost when they do these sorts of sneaky things under the name of user experience.”

Tata Neu was launched in the first week of April and has had at least 2.2 million downloads. The app houses all of the company’s brands ranging across industries such as ecommerce, financial services, airline tickets, grocery, medicines, and hotels. But the inclusion of preloaded personal data in a new app means that the Tata Group has managed to save customer data across its online and offline companies and create their profiles. According to privacy advocates, this is problematic because it happened without users giving explicit consent and in the absence of a comprehensive data-protection law in India.

The Tatas, with a market cap of over $300 billion at current exchange rates, have had a strong offline presence across a wide range of sectors. But, until relatively recently, consumer tech remained an untapped market. So a few years ago, in a bid to compete with tech biggies like Amazon and Walmart-owned Flipkart, Tata started building its digital profile by acquiring startups like Alibaba-backed online grocery firm Big Basket and medicine delivery startup 1mg, along with an investment in health-and-fitness startup Cult.Fit.