World's biggest biometric database grows in India amid doubt

Published
  • December 14 2017, 6:30am EST

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing Indians to link their digital IDs to a host of services such as credit cards and cellphones, even as the Supreme Court will hear petitions Thursday seeking to limit the scope of the world’s largest biometric database.

Almost 1 billion people had signed up for the program before a landmark privacy ruling in August strengthened the case against making the Aadhaar ID mandatory. The court will now decide on the validity of the government’s order to meet specified deadlines. Last month, it told banks and utilities to stop scaring customers after people complained about a barrage of emails and text messages warning of frozen accounts and invalidated sim cards if they failed to comply with the government’s push.

To be sure, the court’s immediate hearing will only pertain to the deadlines, with more detailed arguments on overall legality probably next year. While officials say Aadhaar is saving the government billions of dollars by better targeting beneficiaries of subsidized food and cash transfers, critics point to unfair exclusions and data leaks.

"Instances of the exclusion of genuine beneficiaries and the public disclosure of Aadhaar numbers make it clear that significant room exists for instituting more substantive privacy protections and grievance redressal mechanisms," said Saksham Khosla, an analyst at Carnegie India. "The Supreme Court can mandate critical safeguards."

Aadhaar is a unique 12-digit number assigned to Indian residents, backed by their fingerprints, iris scans and certain demographic details. Some lawyers and activists, such as Shyam Divan, say that once linked to various services it will offer the government a web of information about each individual that will violate the person’s privacy.

Surveillance State

"The Aadhaar Act purports to provide legal sanction to a program that lays the framework for real time surveillance of every Indian," Divan said.

Hearings are due to start at 11:30 a.m. in New Delhi on Thursday.

Indians are mandated to link their Aadhaar to:

  • Government-issued Permanant Account Numbers, which help track tax filings
  • Bank accounts, credit cards, insurance policies, mutual funds, pension plans
  • Social welfare benefits such as cooking gas subsidies
  • Mobile numbers

Enrollments to Aadhaar have increased by about 80 million over the past year -- roughly the entire population of Germany -- as pressure built on citizens to either link or forfeit these services. Modi had rejected Aadhaar while in opposition, terming it a threat to national security. However, he has since embraced and extended its scope far beyond what was envisioned earlier.

Data LeaksThe program is also plagued by allegations of data leaks, where personal details of users were made public on government websites. The Unique Identification Authority of India, which administers Aadhaar, has denied database vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile newspapers continue to carry reports about poor or disabled Indians -- such as leprosy patients -- who are denied food and pensions because they either lack an Aadhaar number or the fingerprints and iris scans needed to apply for one.

Privacy experts and lawyers suggest the Supreme Court’s ruling this August that Indians have a fundamental right to privacy could be a setback to the government’s push. A right to privacy, activists say, means the government can’t force Indian citizens to hand over their unique biometric data to the government in order to receive basic government services.

Bloomberg News

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