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India

Top Indian court upholds legality of world’s largest biometric database

‘Aadhaar’ system is used for everything from opening bank accounts to government services, but critics argue it could be breached, noting several leaks of personal information

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2018, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2018, 10:40pm

India’s Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the government’s Aadhaar system, the world’s largest biometric database containing the personal information of more than a billion Indians.

A five-judge bench at India’s top court laid down stringent new limits on how Aadhaar information could be used but said the benefits of the system outweighed any risks to privacy.

However, it cannot be made mandatory for opening bank accounts or providing mobile-phone connections, Justice A.K. Sikri told the courtroom, but it is required for Indians paying income tax.

The decision on Wednesday settles several major questions that have hung over the Aadhaar in the decade since it was first proposed by the previous Congress government and then vastly expanded by current prime minister Narendra Modi.

“I think this is a fabulous judgment,” said lawyer Kapil Sibal, a member of the Congress party, who had argued in court against the sweeping use of Aadhaar as a means of identification. “It takes care of citizens’ rights and it ensures we don’t have a surveillance state in place, it ensures that our privacy is not intruded into, and at the same time, it protects the rights of the marginalised.”

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The court in January began hearing a clutch of 27 cases challenging the constitutional validity of the system in hearings that stretched for 38 days, eventually becoming the second-longest case ever presented before the highest court.

The system, which now contains biometric and other personal information for more than 1.13 billon Indians, has spawned six years of legal challenges and been a lightning rod for debates about privacy, data sovereignty and digital governance.

Advocates say it has granted hundreds of millions of Indians a unique identity document in a country where only 58 per cent of births are registered. They envision a future where Aadhaar forms the core of a digital identity that could eventually include every Indian’s health records, credit scores, electronic signatures, criminal backgrounds, welfare entitlements and other data.

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Aadhaar, a Hindi word meaning “foundation”, has already been used to give hundreds of millions of Indians their first bank account, proponents say. The data could one day also serve as collateral for loans, bringing hundreds of millions of people into the financial system, as well as streamlining the delivery of welfare services in a country where about 40 per cent of social payments are lost to corruption, leakage or middlemen, according to a 2015 study.

But critics have raised concerns about the possibility of breaches in a database that could eventually store enough information to create a comprehensive profile of a person’s lifestyle, purchases, friends, financial habits, and more.

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Indian media and digital security researchers have documented several instances of Aadhaar records apparently being breached both by sophisticated hacks – as in the most recent case involving a patch that reportedly weakened security measures in the software designed to enrol new users – or by small-time fraudsters who have reportedly sold access to Aadhaar numbers for as little as £6 (US$8).

The Unique Identification Authority of India, which administers the system, has argued the leaked information – including birth dates, parents’ names or Aadhaar numbers – is not secret and the biometric data of Indians, meaning their iris scans and fingerprints, have never been compromised.

Opponents have also objected to government policies that make the Aadhaar card mandatory to access welfare and social services schemes, including for free midday meals at schools and subsidies for rice and other staples.

They claim at least 25 people have died in the past four years because glitches in the system meant they were cut off from rations, health care or pension payments, including two in the past week.

“If Aadhaar works really well, people just receive the same benefits as before,” says Reetika Kheera, an Indian economist and social scientist. “It is pain without gain.”

Registering with Aadhaar is not mandatory but is becoming increasingly necessary to access government services.

Critics had succeeded in persuading the Indian Supreme Court to temporarily freeze a government order that bank accounts and mobile phone connections also require an Aadhaar record.

Legal challenges to Aadhaar last year led the Supreme Court to convene a bench to examine the question of whether Indians have a right to privacy. The court found in a landmark unanimous judgment that such a right existed, a decision that led to the decriminalisation of homosexual sex earlier this month.

Additional reporting by Reuters, Bloomberg