“The secret of business is to know something that nobody else knows.”
– Aristotle Onassis
In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of Aadhaar but struck down several contentious provisions to safeguard privacy and prevent misuse of data. Simply it can be said that the Aadhaar project has survived a fierce legal challenge. Ever since a nine-judge bench ruled unanimously last year that privacy is a fundamental right, opinion began to gain ground that the unique identification programme was vulnerable in the face of judicial scrutiny. While delivering the judgment on the legal standing of Aadhaar on Wednesday, the apex court said that the unique identification number given to the citizens is constitutionally valid, paving the way for making Aadhaar mandatory for availing benefits and subsidies under different social welfare schemes. The apex court, however, rejected the tendency to make Aadhaar mandatory by service providers such as banks, mobile companies, and educational institutes. The apex court partially struck down Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act thereby preventing private companies from using Aadhaar’s biometric identification system to provide services. The court also scrapped the practice of private companies using Aadhaar to establish the identity of their employees. The clause that permitted a Joint Secretary-rank official to authorise security agencies to get Aadhaar-related information has also been cancelled. The court has also asked the Centre to bring a robust law for data protection as soon as possible.
Since its inception, Aadhaar has been criticised as a project which violates privacy. The thrust of the petitioners, who moved court against the project was that Aadhaar encroached on the privacy of citizens by insisting on biometrics. The petitions seeking clarity on the legal status of the Aadhaar law mainly raised the privacy issues associated with the unique number identification mechanism, which collects biometric data of the citizens and offers a unique identification number. Over the past few years, various government departments as well as some private firms, have started insisting that Aadhaar numbers should be used for just about everything, and just about everyone. This is understandable as it is relatively fool-proof. It has become a default option to establish anyone’s identity. In that context there are two dimensions as far as Wednesday’s verdict is concerned — (a) Aadhaar as a master, all-purpose identification tool has been spiked (b) Restored the original intent of the programme: to plug leakages in subsidy schemes and to have better targeting of welfare benefits. At the same time the second angle of the judgment means it provides little relief to the poor (under Section 7) in terms of accessing essential entitlements.
Now that Aadhaar survives in a watered down, truncated version, the executive needs to follow up appropriately. Despite the claims of UIDAI that Aadhaar data is safe and free from manipulation, hacking experts and data journalists often pointed it out that the Aadhaar data is not all that safe and that it can be hacked and misused. As a first step, Aadhaar cards should be delinked from mobile connections and bank accounts, which the court has said was unconstitutional. Illegal immigrants will not get Aadhaar, the court ruled. What about those Aadhaar cards already procured by illegal immigrants? The government should recognise the need for stringent rules concerning access to and security of citizens’ biometric data, in order to preserve their privacy.