India’s Supreme Court approves controversial ‘Aadhar’ biometric identity project

India’s Supreme Court approves controversial ‘Aadhar’ biometric identity project
This photo taken on July 17, 2018, shows an Indian woman getting her fingerprints read during the registration process for Aadhaar cards in Amritsar, India. (AFP/Getty)
Updated 27 September 2018

India’s Supreme Court approves controversial ‘Aadhar’ biometric identity project

India’s Supreme Court approves controversial ‘Aadhar’ biometric identity project
  • In a majority verdict the five judges ruled “Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalized”
  • Started in 2010 by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the UID was originally a voluntary program

NEW DELHI: In a much-awaited judgment India’s Supreme Court has upheld the validity of a controversial biometric identification tool, ruling that Aadhar does not violate privacy rights.
However, the court diluted some of the original provisions of the scheme and asked the government to limit its use to the welfare ID function. The court struck down use of the Unique Identity Number for acquiring mobile numbers, school admissions and operating bank accounts.
In a majority verdict the five judges ruled “Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalized.
“The government should bring out a robust data protection law urgently,” the ruling added.
More than a billion people in India have acquired the number, by submitting biometric data such as fingerprints and retina scans.
Started in 2010 by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, the UID was originally a voluntary program intended to end loopholes in the welfare schemes.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) started expanding the scope of the UID card when it came to power in 2014.
In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi government gave Aadhar constitutional status, making it mandatory for every citizen to have an UID card and linking it to private transactions such as banking, school, phones as well as its welfare scheme use.
However, its constitutional validity was challenged and some critics questioned why the government wanted to collect individuals’ private details. Thirty petitioners challenged the constitutional validity in 2017 saying it was in breach of fundamental privacy rights making India a surveillance state.
“We welcome this decision of Supreme Court,” said the Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at a press conference after the verdict. “Everyone who has been criticizing Aadhar should understand that they cannot defy technology. Mainstream should accept changes, one can understand the fringe being against it,” added Jaitley, who introduced the Aadhar Bill in parliament last year.
However, the opposition Congress party said that the verdict “vindicates the original intent of introducing Aadhar.”
“Aadhar was meant to be an identification tool for those who avail government welfare schemes. It was never meant for private purposes,” said Sanjay Jha, Congress national spokesperson.
In an interview with Arab News, Jha questioned the intention behind making the UID mandatory.
“There is a big problem here. The data of millions of people are already with private players, and how is the government going to ensure that data is returned to the customers, that means, they are destroyed,” he asked.
New Delhi based cybersecurity expert Subimal Bhattacharjee said that fears of data leaks were “misplaced”. “It’s a balanced verdict. The apex court has taken care of the concerns of the petitioners,” he said.
“Never has any biometric been leaked. Why do the fear mongering? This is a rare move anywhere in the world to use technology for the welfare of the people,” he said.
But digital rights activist Nikhil Pahwa disagreed with the verdict that Aadhar was not unconstitutional. “This forces the users to compromise with their privacies,” said Pahwa, the founder of MediaNama, a mobile and digital news portal.
He added: “Leaks taking place in recent times show that Aadhar is a major security risk. Data has been compromised. The apex court decided to trust the government and the authority that prepares the UID rather than the independent experts and activists.
“The court should also have addressed the issue of individual profiling. It’s a major problem.”