Indian Supreme Court Rules Aadhaar Does Not Violate Privacy Rights, But Places Limits On Its Use

from the mixed-result dept

Techdirt wrote recently about what seems to be yet another problem with India’s massive Aadhaar biometric identity system. Alongside these specific security issues, there is the larger question of whether Aadhaar as a whole is a violation of Indian citizens’ fundamental privacy rights. That question was made all the more pertinent in the light of the country’s Supreme Court ruling last year that “Privacy is the constitutional core of human dignity.” It led many to hope that the same court would strike down Aadhaar completely following constitutional challenges to the project. However, in a mixed result for both privacy organizations and Aadhaar proponents, India’s Supreme Court has handed down a judgment that the identity system does not fundamentally violate privacy rights, but that its use must be strictly circumscribed. As The New York Times explains:

The five-judge panel limited the use of the program, called Aadhaar, to the distribution of certain benefits. It struck down the government’s use of the system for unrelated issues like identifying students taking school exams. The court also said that private companies like banks and cellphone providers could not require users to prove their identities with Aadhaar.

The majority opinion of the court said that an Indian’s Aadhaar identity was unique and “unparalleled” and empowered marginalized people, such as those who are illiterate.

The decision affects everything from government welfare programs, such as food aid and pensions, to private businesses, which have used the digital ID as a fast, efficient way to verify customers’ identities. Some states, such as Andhra Pradesh, had also planned to integrate the ID system into far-reaching surveillance programs, raising the specter of widespread government spying.

In essence, the Supreme Court seems to have felt that although Aadhaar’s problems were undeniable, its advantages, particularly for India’s poorest citizens, outweighed those concerns. However, its ruling also sought to limit function creep by stipulating that Aadhaar’s compulsory use had to be restricted to the original aim of distributing government benefits. Although that seems a reasonable compromise, it may not be quite as clear-cut as it seems. The Guardian writes that it still may be possible to use Aadhaar for commercial purposes:

Sharad Sharma, the co-founder of a Bangalore-based technology think tank which has worked closely with Aadhaar’s administrators, said Wednesday’s judgment did not totally eliminate that vision for the future of the scheme, but that private use of Aadhaar details would now need to be voluntary.

“Nothing has been said [by the court] about voluntary usage and nothing has been said about regulating bodies mandating it for services,” Sharma said. “So access to private parties for voluntary use is permitted.”

That looks to be a potentially large loophole in the Supreme Court’s attempt to keep the benefits of Aadhaar while stopping it turning into a compulsory identity system for accessing all government and business services. No doubt in the coming years we will see companies exploring just how far they can go in demanding a “voluntary” use of Aadhaar, as well as legal action by privacy advocates trying to stop them from doing so.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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