Michael CrossEditorMonday 11 September 2017

Indian ID scheme shrugs off court judgement - for now

The world’s largest biometric national identity programme is continuing business as usual despite a landmark privacy ruling

India’s scheme to construct a biometric database of 1.3 billion people appears to be continuing its work despite a ruling by the country’s highest court affirming a constitutional right to privacy.

In a 547-page judgment last month, judges of the Supreme Court of India backed a case brought by campaigning lawyer Prashant Bhushan, ruling unanimously that “The right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty”. The judgment made headlines around the world. 

Social welfare

Specifically, the ruling related to an appeal against what opponents said was prime minister Narendra Modi’s plan to make holding an identification card — known as an Aadhaar card — mandatory for social welfare claimants. The Unique Identification Authority of India, in charge of the Aadhaar programme, argued that this was a misinterpretation, saying any denial of benefits because a claimant could not produce a card would be an offence. However activists said the decision would hamper attempts to enforce digital registration and to bring in new uses for the Aadhaar scheme.

Bhushan said the ruling meant that any law cannot unreasonably infringe upon the right to privacy. “If the government says Aadhaar will be required for travel and purchases then in my view these are unreasonable restrictions. It is a setback to the government.”

Indian non-governmental organisation the Centre for Internet & Society welcomed the judgment, saying it will have “far reaching impacts”.

Marginal citizens 

The Aadhar scheme has attracted worldwide attention for its potential to introduce millions of marginal citizens who have no access to credit or banking into the formal economy. The biometric database will accommodate more than 12 billion fingerprints, 2.4 billion iris scans and 1.2 billion photographs. Individuals are identified by a 12-digit randomly generated number, containing no personal details. Prime Minister Modi, once a critic, has emerged as a strong advocate for the scheme as a means to join up government.

With such high-legal backing, the Supreme Court decision has not interrupted day-to-day work on registration. On the website of the Unique Identification Authority of India the latest press release is dated 12 June. Meanwhile the government says that the Supreme Court’s ruling clarifies that the right to privacy is not absolute, and bars only “unreasonable restrictions”.

International activist group Privacy International commented: “This is not the end, as the meaning and implications of this ruling won’t become fully clear for years and decades to come. Moreover, the judges have argued that there must be data protection that protects the autonomy of the individual. It is essential that civil society plays its role in ensuring that the legislation proposed by the government meets these standards.”