The Aadhaar project started with great fanfare, but it’s now on the verge of meeting an untimely death. It became the converging point of great expectations, to an extent that it was hailed as image of “new and modern India”. That’s why it created great chaos among middle classes, which like always, showed vain excitement to have it by hook or by crook, bothering least about the pros and cons of owning unique identity (UID). This project, bearing close resemblance to similar scheme in United Kingdom, was mired in contradictions right from the beginning. On the top of it, continuous conflicting statements from government, regarding its utility, kept the average mass guessing about its actual worth.
It needs to be informed that several experts in the West have already given enough signals that such project of this type having sensitive data based on biometrics could be used in a wrong way. In fact, they could be used to eliminate and target a large community not serving the interest of people in power. However, in countries like India, where we know how government agencies function, it’s always a great possibility that data could be misused, even if there is no such threat of this magnitude as apprehended by experts in West. It would be interesting to know that similar project in United Kingdom met tough resistance on part of British citizens for many years, which left British government with no other option other than to quash it. A report prepared by London School of Economics made mockery of tall claims made by the government about its significance and it revealed that “biometrics was not a reliable method of de-duplication.”
However, neither the government nor Nandan Nilekani made Indian citizens aware of such serious flaws inherent in this project. On the contrary, it created tension by giving the impression that not owning it meant losing benefits and subsidies involved in various government run schemes. Ironically, just visit any camp where Aadhaar cards are being prepared and one would be taken aback by the mess which prevails there. It’s hard to believe that government has enough will power (forget about enough infrastructure) to keep the data safe! I am sure ones whose data get stored either in wrong way or with wrong sorts of details would definitely face huge issues in coming days. Even at infrastructure level, the picture that emerges is quite threatening since its budget has increased phenomenally from nearly 32 billion rupees to over 88 billion rupees for coming phases.
That’s why Supreme Court’s judgement came as a whiff of fresh air. It directed the government not to make it mandatory for Indian citizens, and that it could not be a ground to deny services introduced by government. Above all, it made it clear that details collected by Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) would not be shared by it with any other government agency without prior permission of the concerned individual. At this point, it would not be out of place to refer to Social Security Number (SSN) used in USA, which does not compromises with right to privacy. The most shocking thing is that despite strict provisions there to stop identity theft such cases keep happening there leading to huge revenue loss. Now imagine the state of affairs in India where rules can be easily manipulated to benefit the vested interests! Who would guarantee that data protection and privacy would always remain a top priority in India?
The Supreme Court made this observations in PIL filed by retired Karnataka High Court judge Justice KS Puttaswamy and Maj Gen (retd) SG Vombatkere which dealt with constitutional validity of Aadhaar. As per their counsel even if there was any statute to provide validity to this project, it would still be violation of Fundamental Rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution. The project facilitating surveillance of individuals was a direct assault on the dignity of any individual. The main arguments rested upon these concerns: “…the (Aadhaar) project is also ultra vires because there is no statutory guidance (a) on who can collect biometric information; (b) on how the information is to be collected; (c) on how the biometric information is to be stored; (d) on how throughout the chain beginning with the acquisition of biometric data to its storage and usage, this data is to be protected; (e) on who can use the data; (f) on when the data can be used.” (As quoted in moneylife)
In fact, Goa case had already made it clear how could biometric data be used against the interests of any individual. In this case UIDAI had challenged a decision of Goa Bench of Bombay High Court. It had asked it to share biometric data with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) so that the case involving gang rape of a seven year old girl in Vasco reached to its logical culmination.
Anyway, the Supreme Court’s decision to not to make it mandatory is enough to make Indian citizens heave a sigh of relief. It’s high time that before government embarks upon sensitive project it needs to take enough measures to ensure its appropriateness, relevance and significance quite well.