By Dhruv Shekhar
The debate to determine whether privacy constitutes a fundamental right currently ensues in India’s Supreme Court. Meanwhile, it is peremptory to discern why the Aadhar project may cause a probable risk of violation to the privacy of Indian citizens and to decide if reform or repeal is the way to move forward.
Big brother 2.0?
The Aadhar project has served as the Indian government’s magnum opus digital project for the better part of the last decade. Irrespective of the regime in place, it has received an immense push. The past couple of years have also witnessed the Aadhar program serve as a linking database between other government welfare services, an aspect which was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court’s recent judgment on the linking of Aadhar and Pan Cards.
Many detractors of the program have disparaged it for the sheer volume of data it has on its crore plus signatories and the fear that it may lead to the emergence of a surveillance state. However, the problem runs much deeper. Even in the absence of the Aadhar program, the government—under the auspices of programs such as the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the recently reinstated NATGRID system—is well equipped to monitor its citizens. Moreover, the digital footprints that people leave all over the Internet allow for even private organisations to use algorithms to discern everything from their religion to their song choices.
Thus the issue of concern isn’t that data collection is by itself invasive towards the citizens’ privacy. Rather, the concern is regarding the questionable mechanisms in place to protect said information. The news of the loss of 130 million people’s Aadhar data earlier this May did little to calm the nerves of an apprehensive public about this system. Linkage of different services on one platform admittedly ensures for convenience and optimal utilisation of resources. However, when this comes at the cost effectively securing this information, it is a failure on part of the concerned administrators.
Privacy and cyber crime
The month of May also witnessed the true power of cyber crime, with the release and subsequent spread of the dreaded #Ransomware malware which decimated bytes of digital information in countless computers across the globe. Which only begs the question: would the UIDAI regime be able to combat a threat of similar nature? The answer on the basis of recent evidence appears to be in the negative.
The need of the hour is a wholesale improvement and investment in the cyber-policing structure of the country, as well the development of an acute response mechanism. Combating any possible incursion of the information is imperative, and it is equally pivotal that in the case of such leakage the citizens are informed. As many commentators have stated, such a scenario would prevent the further use of certain private information to avoid any fraudulent transactions.
Is it really “revolutionary”?
Furthermore, question marks have also been raised about the dubiously small focus of the entire Aadhar program. For a program described as “revolutionary”, it has found itself limited to a narrow focus on welfare schemes. Nandan Nilekani, the architect behind the Aadhar program, talks about the transformative impact of this technology in his book Rebooting India. However, the extent to which it has been brought into practice remains questionable, to say the least.
As Professor Subhashis Banerjee puts it, the scope of such a technology rests in the linking of Local ID’s via vertical integration to efforts such as the census, education, health-care and immunization records, birth and death records, land records, property registration, police verification and law enforcement, disaster management, security and intelligence and others. Even a malaise such as election fraud has been deemed curable if voter cards are linked with Aadhar cards. This would eliminate the presence of people casting their votes while not possessing Indian citizenship. Moreover, a hypothetical linkage such as aforementioned is likely to heighten and improve the quality and expanse of cyber security systems aimed at protecting citizens’ information.
In addition to the aforesaid, there have been a number of complaints pertaining to wiping out the beneficiaries of MNREGA in Jharkhand. Additionally, there are loopholes in the legislation allowing for people’s biometric information (excluding core biometric information) to be accessed by any requesting agency or person. Such problems demonstrate the infallibility of the system in its present form. The fight for repealing this program, which is being contested in the courts, is emblematic of the sheer mistrust that exists between the citizenry and the government.
Asking the right questions
Thus the question should not be whether the Aadhar program violates the Indian’s citizenry’s privacy but whether it does so in its iterant form (under the UIDAI Act, 2016). The issue here is not merely one of eroding the civil liberties of the Indian citizenry; instead, the passing and the implementation of the Aadhar Act are symptomatic of problems with the incumbent governmental regime. While it’s high-value thought and ideation create immense expectations, its implementation on more than one occasion has left a lot to be desired.
However, a mere uprooting of the work that has been done so far would be counterintuitive and an abysmal waste of resources. As illustrated above, the Aadhar program is not a mere tool of societal mapping but one of social transformation. If utilised properly, it can change the method of diagnosing problems and finding solutions for 21st-century India.
Featured Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius