August 17, 2015 -
India’s Supreme Court has placed a cease order on the national Indian government concerning the use of Aadhaar data. Last week, the Court barred the country’s Election Commission from linking electoral data to the Aadhaar system until the greater question of privacy and the use of the biometric system itself is settled.
In July, BiometricUpdate.com reported that India’s government asked the court to reconsider all Supreme Court judgments over the past two decades that define privacy as a constitutional right. The government is seeking to eliminate the notion of privacy being conceived as a fundamental right bestowed by the country’s constitution, in order to extend the Aadhaar system to myriad government programs.
While the system, implemented by the government’s Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), is designed to provide all of the country’s residents with unique identification through biometrics, with an aim to deliver specified social services, the government has been seeking to extend Aadhaar to prevent welfare fraud, employee time theft, and increase security at airports. The court’s latest interim order, however, freezes the extension of the application of Aadhaar until the question of privacy has been adjudicated.
Under the new court order, the use of Aadhaar is restricted to the distribution of liquid propane gas, kerosene and food grains. India’s Supreme Court also ordered that any data collected by the UIDAI cannot be used for any other purpose, except for criminal investigations, when specifically directed by the court.
In its judgement, the court also stated that the government had to ensure it made it extremely clear to citizens that the use of the Aadhaar system is optional for accessing welfare programs, and that no personal data contained within the system would be shared with any other government departments.
Currently, the service is used to identify citizens and provide various services for approximately 630 million people. The database was also actively used to monitor school attendance and to send wages directly to people’s bank accounts.
The court order therefore temporarily stops the extension of Aadhaar by the Modi government, which was planning to extend social services through the system to include a new universal healthcare scheme, along with enhanced attendance monitoring of government employees.
During the last election campaign, Modi’s political party had opposed the biometric ID system, which it characterized as a “failure” and a “waste of money”, which needed to be eliminated. However, after the new government came to power, it decided not only to maintain, but expand the system outside of its original mandate. The constitutionality of the existing Aadhaar system had always been in question, but the case currently in front of India’s Supreme Court should ultimately determine its legality.