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BRP Bhaskar: Privacy concerns over ID card
June 20, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Over the past eight years the Indian government has gone ahead with a scheme to issue a unique identity card to all citizens, brushing aside widespread concerns over their right to privacy. On more than one occasion the Supreme Court said it cannot be made mandatory but the authorities are pushing ahead with it.

The United Progressive Alliance government created the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009 and charged it with the task of issuing unique identification numbers, to be known as Aadhaar, to all residents of India. It said Aadhaar would help check leakage in various welfare measures resulting from the prevalence of fake ID cards.

Several civil society organisations objected to the scheme, fearing it would lead to surveillance of citizens. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then in the opposition, shared their concern. It called the scheme a fraud and blocked the passage of a law to give the UIDAI statutory backing.

Nevertheless, the UPA government went ahead with the scheme. Not many people applied for Aadhaar. The government got over the problem by deciding to issue Aadhaar to all those who had provided personal particulars and biometric data for preparation of the National Population Register under the Citizenship Act of 1955.

The process was going on when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power. Reversing the position his party had taken earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to go ahead with the Aadhaar scheme.

He gave the UIDAI statutory status by pushing through Parliament a measure styled as Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act. To overcome the disability resulting from the NDA’s lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the measure was labelled as a money bill. The upper house has no power to make changes in a money bill.

As the government linked Aadhaar with various welfare schemes, citizens sought intervention by the courts. So far there has been no conclusive court ruling.

On several occasions the Supreme Court said Aadhaar should not be made mandatory. Once it asked the government to advertise widely that it is not mandatory to obtain an Aadhaar card. At the same time it let the government link various schemes with Aadhaar.

In 2015, the apex court said the Aadhaar scheme is purely voluntary and “cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or another”. It has set up a constitution bench to take that final decision but it is yet to hear the matter.

Early this month the government issued a notification making linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts and the permanent account number cards issued by the Income Tax department mandatory. It also made Aadhaar mandatory for making bank deposits of more than Rs 50,000.

The government claimed these steps would help weed out fake and fraudulent transactions.

The Supreme Court let the notification stand but ruled that it would not be applicable to those who do not have an Aadhaar card or have not applied for one until the constitution bench decides the privacy question.

The Aadhaar Act prohibits sharing, publishing, displaying or public posting of the core biometric information collected under the project except in the interest of “national security”, which remains undefined. However, some recent reports have raised doubts about the way the government handles the information in its possession.

The Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit interdisciplinary research organisation, recently revealed a few instances in which agencies under the Centre and the Andhra Pradesh government published on their websites data which could potentially compromise the interest of more than 130 million Aadhaar cardholders and 100 million bank account holders.

According to media reports, the Jharkhand government has made public personal details of 1.4 million persons who have linked their Aadhaar numbers with bank accounts to facilitate direct transfer of their monthly pensions. A private and two firms are currently facing charges of cyber crime for hacking and breaching the privacy of Aadhaar data.

Aadhaar may not spell the end of fake identities. India’s population, which stood at 1,210 million at the time of the 2011 census, is currently estimated at close to 1,342 million. UIDAI has issued more than 1,155 million Aadhaar cards so far. By March 2015 as many as 13 states and union territories had already issued cards in excess of the 2011 population.

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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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