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India’s Supreme Court to hear petitions on Aadhaar next week

India’s five-judge Supreme Court bench will hear several petitions challenging the legality of the Aadhaar project, said Chief Justice of India JS Khehar, according to a report by The Economic Times.

The hearing, which will begin on July 18, will determine whether the mandatory nature of the program is an infringement on citizen privacy rights.

Aadhaar is the 12-digit unique identification number issued by the Indian government to every individual resident of India. The Aadhaar project aims to provide a single, unique identifier which captures all the demographic and biometric details of every Indian resident. As of May, over 1.1 billion people out of India’s population of 1.27 billion have been registered in the Aadhaar database.

The program, governed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), is currently used to authenticate delivery of social services including school attendance, natural gas subsidies to India’s rural poor, and direct wage payments to bank accounts. The system also provides identification to people who do not have birth certificates.

Although the Aadhaar scheme was initially launched for the provision of social services, the Indian government has extended Aadhaar to consumer financial transactions (currently there are 400 million linked bank accounts), and to myriad other services.

Privacy advocates have called the Aadhaar scheme ‘pernicious’ because of its unwarranted intrusion on the privacy of citizens.

The Aadhaar program raised concerns when the government made it mandatory under an executive order. Parliament has since passed a law backing the decision, which has been opposed by activists and citizens alike but the government has said the mandatory nature is necessary to prevent leaks in subsidies in the system.

However, opponents argue that it violates a citizen’s right to privacy, a fundamental part of the right to life and dignity guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The Attorney General has questioned the claim of a citizen to a fundamental right to privacy.

Former AG Mukul Rohatgi said that the government had “no such right” to make the scheme mandatory, an issue that will be debated by the five-judge bench. If required, the case will be referred to a larger bench of nine judges.

Many are also concerned about the safety of the personal information collected from citizens and private agencies hired to do the job.

Earlier this month, The Hindu ran a recent op-ed piece in which writer Sanjay Hegdet called on the Chief Justice of India to establish the larger Bench to assess privacy challenges to Aadhaar.

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