October 12, 2015 -
India’s Supreme Court has established a constitutional panel to review a cease order that suspended the multi-fold expansion of the Aadhaar citizen biometric registration scheme.
The court announced that it will hear multiple applications on October 14, including an item seeking both clarification and modification of its August order which halted wide scale use of the scheme.
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.
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 proposed 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.