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India's Aadhaar Biometric System: Examining Privacy And Civil Liberties

Aadhaar is a '12-digit unique identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to Indian residents'[1]Aadhaar represents a distinct 12-digit identification code granted by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to Indian inhabitants. This number relies on biometric and population-related information like fingerprints and iris patterns, serving as evidence of both identity and residence. The introduction of the Aadhaar system aimed to establish a strong and all-encompassing identification method, enhancing the efficiency of service provision and welfare allocation throughout India.

Uses of Aadhaar

Aadhaar plays a pivotal role in simplifying the dispersion of government welfare programs and subsidies. Its purpose is to guarantee that entitlements reach their designated recipients without intermediaries, thereby minimizing instances of misappropriation and unethical practices. The government furthers financial inclusion by integrating Aadhaar with bank accounts, thus facilitating easier access to formal financial services for those with limited banking exposure.

Aadhaar functions as a digital identification for individuals across various transactions and services, encompassing activities such as initiating bank accounts, seeking government provisions, and obtaining mobile connections. Moreover, it's employed to connect and authenticate income tax returns, with the overarching aim of curbing tax evasion and augmenting adherence to tax regulations.

The Aadhaar Act

The 'Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits, and Services) Act, 2016' is a law that regulates the gathering, retention, and utilization of Aadhaar-related data. It establishes a legal structure for the distinctive identification system, defining the rights and duties of both the government and Aadhaar holders.

The term 'Aadhaar number' alludes to an identification code allocated to an individual by Section 3 of the Act. By obviating the necessity of presenting multiple documents for identity verification, using Aadhaar as an identification credential enables beneficiaries to access their privileges promptly, conveniently, and seamlessly. It alleviates the inconvenience of repeatedly furnishing evidence of identity whenever a resident seeks to avail of services, advantages, or subsidies.

Criticisms of Aadhaar

Although the Aadhaar system offers advantages, it has encountered significant criticism due to apprehensions surrounding privacy and data security. Concerns revolve around the potential for unauthorized entry to biometric and personal data. Cases have arisen where technical problems and inadequate infrastructure have marginalized certain groups, causing them to miss out on vital services.

The discussion regarding whether Aadhaar ought to be obligatory or optional for accessing services has sparked dispute, prompting inquiries about personal freedoms and decisions.[2]

Key Provisions of the Aadhaar Act

The Act allows residents to voluntarily enroll for an Aadhaar number by submitting their biometric and demographic information to the UIDAI. It enables government agencies to verify the identity before delivering or disbursing subsidies. There were instances where government authorities made Aadhaar mandatory for various services. This led to debates over the infringement of civil liberties and the right to choose.

The Act includes provisions safeguarding the privacy and security of Aadhaar holders' information. It restricts the sharing of Aadhaar data without the consent of the individual and imposes penalties for unauthorized disclosure or misuse of such data. The act establishes the concept of a unique identification number for each resident of India. It also defines the demographic information that can be collected and stored, such as name, address, date of birth, and gender.

It allows the collection and storage of biometric data, including fingerprints and iris scans, for the purpose of generating and authenticating Aadhaar numbers.[3] Critics have raised concerns about the security and potential misuse of biometric information.

Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) & Anr. v. Union of India & Ors. (2017)[4], In the case, a bench comprising nine judges in the Indian Supreme Court established that the 'Right to Privacy' is a fundamental right safeguarded by the Indian Constitution. This ruling laid the groundwork for subsequent legal challenges against the Aadhaar Act, and it prompted considerations about potential effects on civil liberties. The Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Aadhaar Act while invalidating specific provisions that permitted private firms to access Aadhaar data and mandated the linkage of Aadhaar with bank accounts and mobile numbers.

Instances where information could be disclosed:
For reasons of national security, a Joint Secretary within the central government is authorized to issue a directive for disclosing (i) the Aadhaar number, (ii) biometric data (including iris scans, fingerprints, and other specified biological attributes), (iii) demographic details, and (iv) a photograph.[5]

The Oversight Committee, comprised of the Cabinet Secretary, along with the Secretaries of Legal Affairs and Electronics and Information Technology, will evaluate this decision, with its legitimacy remaining effective for a span of six months.[6]

On the court's order:
  1. an individual's Aadhaar number,
  2. a photograph, and
  3. demographic information may be divulged.

Impact on Civil Liberties

The implementation of the Act has sparked debates and controversies regarding its impact on civil liberties. One of the most significant concerns is the potential invasion of privacy. The centralized storage of biometric and demographic data raises fears about unauthorized access, identity theft, and mass surveillance, which could lead to violations of individual privacy rights.

There have been reports of the exclusion of marginalized groups due to technical glitches or lack of infrastructure for Aadhaar authentication. This raises questions about equitable access to services and welfare benefits for all citizens.

Its implementation has faced several legal challenges, with landmark cases addressing the right to privacy and data protection. The Aadhaar Act's impact on civil liberties has been a subject of debate, with concerns raised over privacy, exclusion, and mandatory enrollment. Striking a balance between state interests and individual rights remains a complex challenge for policymakers and the judiciary as they continue to evaluate and refine the Aadhaar system to ensure equitable and secure governance for all citizens in India.

  1. 'Initial analysis of Indian Supreme Court decision on Aadhaar' (26th September 2018) Privacy International accessed 6th August 2023
  2. Reetika Khera, 'The Different Ways in Which Aadhaar Infringes on Privacy' (19th July 2017) The Wire accessed 6th August 2023
  3. The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery Of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016. PDF accessed 28th October 2023.
  4. Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) Vs Union of India (2017) 10 SCC 1
  5. Bobins Abraham, 'Now That The Aadhaar Bill Is Cleared By The Parliament, The Government Has A Powerful Tool To Spy On You' (March 17 2016) India Times accessed 8th August 2023
  6. Vrinda Bhandari, Renuka Sane "A Critique Of The Aadhaar Legal Framework" JSTOR Vol. 31, No. 1 (2019),pp. 72-97 (26 pages)

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