By: Charlotte Volpe
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia
NEW DELHI, India – On September 26, 2018, a five-justice panel of the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutionality of the national biometric identification system, Aadhaar. While noting its constitutionality in a 4-1 ruling, the court also placed strict limitations on Aadhaar’s scope and reach.
The ruling maintained that Aadhaar could be required for accessing public benefits and filing income taxes. However, the court struck down on private companies’ ability to require Aadhaar identification from their customers for access to their services.
Aadhaar – “foundation” in Hindi – is an expansive biometric information database administered by the Indian government that includes the fingerprints and iris scans of 1.2 billion people – 9 out of 10 Indians. The program was originally founded in 2009 as a foolproof digital identification system for all Indians, particularly for those who have traditionally struggled to produce formal proof of identity.
The biometric information in Aadhaar’s database is matched to a unique 12-digit number, which serves as an ID and ensures that government services are received by intended parties. Welfare recipients use this number to verify their identity upon collecting benefits or joining government work programs.
With Narendra Modi’s election in 2014, Aadhaar’s use expanded past its original intent of streamlining public services delivery. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party granted private companies access to Aadhaar biometric data for customer verification purposes, placing Indian citizens’ fingerprints at corporations’ fingertips. Everything from opening a bank account or setting up a cell phone line required an Aadhaar number.
The court’s ruling on Aadhaar’s constitutionality invited pushback from critics and supporters alike.
Privacy-advocates lamented that upholding Aadhaar violates data security protections and facilitates the potential for a surveillance state. Activists worry that mandating Aadhaar registration for receipt of government benefits may preclude some of India’s most vulnerable populations from access to public services and subsidies.
Private companies were disappointed by the court’s ruling, which places severe limitations on their ability to utilize Aadhaar in their customer sign-up processes. Using Aadhaar’s biometric data verification was significantly more cost-effective than traditional paper-based means of identity proof.
The court’s decision to uphold Aadhaar with severe restrictions sets an example for future data privacy and security inquiries. National governments will continue to grapple with the balance act between enhanced security and ease, and privacy protection. India’s Supreme Court ruling sets a precedent for future questions on this issue that are certain to arise.
For further information, please see:
The Economist – A court upholds but curbs India’s giant biometric ID system – 27 September 2018
Human Rights Watch – India: Top Court OK’s Biometric ID Program – 27 September 2018
The New York Times – India’s Top Court Limits Sweep of Biometric ID Program – 25 September 2018