Suspend Aadhaar, it is leading India to a surveillance state

Suspend Aadhaar, it is leading India to a surveillance state

One important feature of Aadhaar is its immense potential to violate privacy and civil liberty of the people. This is one of the main issues highlighted by the petitioners in the Supreme Court.

Aadhaar envisages a centralised database of Indian residents. At present, the data on each individual is available only in separate “silos” and it is near impossible to link a person’s information in one silo to that in another. A unique ID number opens up this possibility. An invasive government, a profit-minded private entity or a hostile group can get hold of personal data in more than one silo. Such data could be linked up to create a profile of individuals as well as track them for life. This constitutes an assault on a very basic freedom enjoyed by each individual.

Very few countries have national databases of citizens allowing convergence across silos. In most countries where such projects were introduced, such as the United States or United Kingdom, citizens reacted collectively to the threats of intrusion into their democratic rights. They argued that the data collected may be misused for a variety of dubious purposes. Legislations on privacy have not been seen as satisfactory guarantees against functionality creep.

Privacy is no “western” import into India. The idea of privacy is well-embedded in the history of all Indian cultures. The Supreme Court of India has inferred the right to privacy from the explicit guarantee of personal liberty in Article 21 of the Constitution.

In other words, the right to personal liberty subsumes the right to privacy too. From the 1964 judgement on ‘Kharak Singh v/s The State of U. P. & Others’, right up to the 2009 judgement on ‘Ram Jethmalani v/s the Union of India’, this has been a fundamental guiding principle for the Supreme Court.

In the 2009 judgement, the SC noted that the right to privacy “is not merely that the State is enjoined from derogating from them. It also includes the responsibility of the State to uphold them against the actions of others in the society, even in the context of exercise of fundamental rights by those others.”

The present government does not consider the right to privacy as valuable at all. According to Nandan Nilekani, “privacy and convenience is always a trade-off”. Further, discussions around Aadhaar have involved open calls for sharing personal information with private companies.

For instance, a Planning Commission working group in 2006 callously recommended that “…unique ID could form…the basis of a public-private-partnership wherein unique ID-based data can be outsourced to other users.” It also stated that “part of this database could be shared with even purely private smart card initiatives such as private banking/financial services on a pay-as-you-use principle…”

In India, one major threat to privacy arises from here: the promotion of private players in the provision of social services, such as education, health, banking and insurance.

With the privatisation of social services, personal data would be transformed into commodities in the market for Aadhaar numbers. In such a context, promises to introduce privacy laws become weak tools to gain the trust of citizens. India does not have a privacy law. The collection, use and sharing of personal data collected by the UIDAI is a totally unregulated sphere.

A second concern is whether biometric information collected by the UIDAI would be used for policing purposes. In what is a typical case of “functionality creep”,  the police and security forces, if allowed access into the biometric database, could extensively use it for regular surveillance and investigative purposes. Regular use of biometric data in policing can lead to a large number of human rights violations.

Two specific instances of the police accessing the biometric database of the UIDAI have already been noted. In February 2013, the Goa Police approached the UIDAI office in Mumbai to identify the fingerprints collected from the site of murder of a seven-year old girl in Vasco. Newspaper reports quoted Goa Police sources thus: “officials of UID cards have agreed to share the data”. In April 2013, the Kerala Police requested help from the UIDAI in Bangalore to identify fingerprints collected from the site of the Mariakkutty murder case in Kannur.

On April 3, the Malayala Manorama quoted Kerala Police officials as saying that “Aadhaar card will also be as helpful as mobile phones in investigation process.” Under which law of the land? Indeed, the future appears scary.

What is to be done? Clearly, the most reasoned way ahead is to suspend the Aadhaar project immediately. There should be a serious rethink on the idea of a centralised database linked to biometrics. Centralised information is centralised power. One is indeed living in fool’s paradise to imagine that centralised power will lead to no abuse of power.

(The author is Associate Professor with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai )

Related Stories

Aadhaar on shaky foundation

Focus on cash transfer, not target