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India’s privacy court decision to affect government databases


The “right to privacy” reference question now before India’s Supreme Court will have major implications concerning the cross-linking of Aadhaar and ancillary biometric registries to other government databases.

Petitioners recently asked the court to protect constitutional rights to privacy. The government, on the other hand, is seeking to declare that a “right to privacy” does not formally exist. If the court ultimately determines that the right is not existent, then the national government will legally be able to use Aadhaar for additional social programs.

The national government, under Prime Minister Modi, had sought to expand the use of Aadhaar, India’s citizen biometric registration scheme, to a multitude of different programs that would facilitate “anytime, anywhere, anyhow” access to both a universal healthcare program and bank accounts. The new government was also reportedly exploring the use of Aadhaar to assist in the issuance of passports, mobile SIM smartphone cards, pension payments and e-commerce transactions. BiometricUpdate.com also recently reported that Indian telecommunication firms ultimately are asking to use Aadhaar for faster subscriber verification, as part of the the country’s “Digital India” initiative.

The court however placed a cease order on the government, restricting the use of Aadhaar to the distribution of liquid propane gas, kerosene and food grains until the right to privacy reference question is resolved. India’s Supreme Court also ordered that any additional data collected under the auspices of the Aadhaar program not be used for any other purpose, except for criminal investigations, when specifically directed by the court.

The government was initially intent on linking electoral data to the Aadhaar database, but the court stopped that process, until the legality of that action and the constitutionality of privacy rights are determined.

The issue before the court is important because multiple government databases, including Aadhaar, will need to be linked to one another to enable the new proposed social programs. Further, the government had intended to link databases to each other in order to enhance its national security apparatus.

The government began a pilot project earlier this year that allowed passengers with an Aadhaar identification number to enter the Kempegowda International Airport in Bangalore, India, using their fingerprint.

Further, the Indian news Web site Business Standard, noted that work was also underway by the national government to develop a “National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID)”, that would provide intelligence and investigating agencies real-time access to 21 databanks, including banking, credit card, income tax, election identity card, travel details, call records, PAN card, property, income tax and driving licence details that would be linked to the National Population Register (NPR).

NPR is also a biometric database, based on India’s census. It is estimated that the proposed NATGRID system would contain records on 1.2 billion people.

Business Standard said that NATGRID would be utilized by law enforcement, allowing all police stations in India to be linked through a new “Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System”. The government states that it can create such a system under the Code of Criminal Procedure and that NATGRID will expedite the process. However, civil liberties activists believe that any such system must face the scrutiny of the privacy challenge now before India’s Supreme Court before they can be implemented.

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