The center recently dismissed the right to privacy, as not being a fundamental right, in its defense of the Aadhaar Card Scheme. In a petition hearing on 23rd July, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi said that Privacy was not a “guaranteed right” and therefore parting with personal information to avail Aadhaar card doesn’t mean that there is a violation of privacy.
The episode opened up the debate of the implication of such a scheme that collects the biometric data of the applicants. The scheme is an attempt to uniquely identify people, somewhat like the social security system of the US, wherein every resident is allotted a Unique Identification (UID) number of 12 digits. This enables the card holders to avail a plethora of government services. For this purpose, the government collects biometric details of the card holder and stores them in a centralized database. This is where the conflict emerges.
In November 2012, a former Karnataka High Court judge, Justice K S Puttaswamy and a lawyer Parvesh Khanna filed a Public Interest Litigation against the Aadhaar scheme in Supreme Court on the grounds of violation of privacy. Article 21 of the Indian constitution – Protection of Life and Personal Liberty -prevents encroachment on personal freedom and the citizen has the freedom to personal liberty. Although the scheme is meant to maximize access to government welfare schemes and mainly to digitize government processes in order to prevent corruption, the data collected from the applicants is seen by people as an invasion of privacy and an imposition.
The Aadhaar card, which is the world’s largest identification number scheme, has no law governing the proper functioning of the project. This means that there is no law to ensure that the data collected is stored safely. The biometric details (retinal scan, fingerprint) are personal information which can be misused if it falls at the wrong hands.
Furthermore, when the Centre told the Supreme Court that Right to Privacy is not a fundamental right and therefore the scheme cannot be revoked, it provoked a strong reaction from people. It is seen as an absolute violation of individual liberty. The largest unique identification system in the world is apprehended by cynics as a mass surveillance project that threatens the personal liberty of individuals.
Ever since its genesis in 2011, the scheme has been viewed with a lot of skepticism. The contention was that asking for biometric details of the card holders is an invasion of privacy. The fear is that with such a massive scale collection of data, who makes sure that our details are safe and what happens when/if it falls into the wrong hands? What happens when the data is compromised? We don’t know how this information is controlled and who might have access to it.
It is true that privacy is a subjective concept, which is oftentimes conflated with the idea of concealment, and that is when the problem starts. If the attorney general’s statement is to be taken into account, there is all the more reason to worry. Because if privacy is not of utmost importance to the government, then the details in the Aadhar card are at risk of misuse. If the biometric data collected is abused, it could lead to the creation of fraudulent documents in the name of a person.
In the contemporary cyber era with computerized data collection, information is stored and shared across different technological platforms. Such systems are always at risk of being exploited. Therefore, when the government representative makes statements about privacy being a non-issue, it incites the doubt of the citizens. It is not about how an ‘honest person has nothing to hide’; it becomes an issue of accountability. It makes citizens rethink their faith in the government’s responsibility to safeguard the interests of the citizens, especially in the modern democratic setup.
Dr R. Ramakumar, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) has been vocal about the privacy issue surrounding the Aadhaar. He suggests looking for an alternative welfare scheme that uses less invasive technologies. In a telephonic conversation, he said that “there should either be a public welfare scheme that by design factors in privacy policies, or even if it doesn’t, then it should be regulated by privacy policies”.
In the name of transparency, such invasive techniques directly impinge on the personal freedom of individuals. One way the government could step up for damage control is by ensuring penal terms for privacy violation. It is imperative that any system of data collection factors in the risks and consequences of such a practice. The government should ensure the citizens that it has a robust mechanism in place to prevent leakage of data in transit.
The bottom-line is that there cannot be a trade-off between the right to personal liberty and the right to survive. What we need is a welfare scheme that is conducive to both criteria.