October 15, 2015 -
The Indian government admitted to India’s Supreme Court that Aadhaar cardholders can opt out of the unique identification scheme if they wish by blocking data embedded on the cards.
“The making of the card is voluntary,” stated Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, in front of the court yesterday. “Using the card is voluntary and not only this, a cardholder can block it too. If a person wants to block the information about him contained in the biometric database, he can do it voluntarily and nobody will be able to unblock it. Such information will be locked till he wants.”
This admission by India’s Attorney General is the first time that the national government has disclosed that a mechanism exists under which a cardholder can choose to block biometric information linked to their Aadhaar card, according to an article in the Indian Express.
The newspaper reported that such a blocking mechanism was introduced “some time back following clamour from rights activists that Aadhaar allegedly trampled upon the right to privacy and that once enrolled, a cardholder could not deregister.”
This information was revealed in front a constitutional panel that is reviewing a cease order that suspended the national government’s multi-fold expansion of the Aadhaar citizen biometric registration scheme. The panel was struck after a three-judge panel of the court refused to modify a cease order restricting Aadhaar’s use.
In August, the court placed a cease order on the central government concerning its use of Aadhaar data. Under the court order, the use of Aadhaar was restricted to the distribution of liquid propane gas, kerosene and food grains. The Supreme Court of India also ordered that any additional data collected under the auspices of the Aadhaar program could not be used for any other purpose, except for criminal investigations specifically approved by the court.
In its cease order, 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.
Through using this argument, the government is attempting to claim that the Aadhaar scheme is optional. Indeed, Rohatgi told the court yesterday that Aadhaar was “purely voluntary” and that residents are not mandatorily obliged to obtain cards. However, he did note that cardholders should not be deprived of social benefits because some people are opposed to the Aadhaar scheme.
Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identification number issued by the Indian government to every individual resident of India. The Aadhaar project was initiated by the previous Congress Party administrator as an attempt towards having a single, unique identification document or number that would capture all the details, including demographic and biometric information, of every resident Indian individual. Currently, Aadhaar is used to identify citizens and provides various services for approximately 630 million people.
Ironically, the Modi government, which came to power last year, was highly critical of the previous government’s administration of the biometric ID system during a contentious election campaign, when it characterized Aadhaar as a “failure” and a “waste of money” that needed to be eliminated.
However, after Modi came to power, his government vowed to use the scheme to expand social services to include a new universal healthcare scheme, along with enhanced monitoring of government employee attendance and truancy. The government also wants to expand the use of the Aadhaar biometric system for national security and crime-related surveillance.
This review will only examine the legality of the cease order. A larger panel of the bench will examine the question of whether the right to privacy is a fundamental right, according to the August cease order. Civil libertarians in opposition to the Aadhaar scheme have long argued that the system is unconstitutional because it breaches a fundamental right to privacy. In response, the government recently argued before the Supreme Court that privacy is not a fundamental right bestowed by India’s constitution and asked the court to reconsider all its judgments over the past two decades that defined privacy as a constitutional right.