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India’s ruling that citizens have right to privacy could impact biometric ID plan


India’s Supreme Court has finally ruled citizens have a fundamental right to privacy, which could potentially derail the government’s plan for making registration of its Aadhaar biometric identification program a requirement for all government services, according to a report by Bloomberg.

The Supreme Court made the ruling after a month of hearing multiple petitions challenging the legality of the Aadhaar project to determine whether citizens are entitled to privacy as a fundamental right.

The nine-judge bench unanimously ruled that privacy was considered a fundamental right under the country’s constitution.

“Right to privacy is an intrinsic part of right to life,” Chief Justice J.S. Khehar said during the verdict.

The ruling could also affect the efforts of several global corporations in India including Alphabet Inc.’s Google search engine, Facebook Inc.’s social network and its WhatsApp messaging platform as well as tech firms like Apple Inc. and Uber Inc., which leverage the data of users on a daily basis.

Aadhaar was initially developed to facilitate the accurate issuance of social security benefits to the poor, as well as prevent duplicate or false payments, by linking a citizen’s ID with their biometric data.

The program has gradually become an integral part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to turn the country into a cashless society.

“Aadhaar’s architecture will now have to be tested on the touchstone of privacy being a fundamental right,” said lawyer Sajan Poovayya, who represents lawmaker and entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar, one of the petitioners. “If Aadhaar has to pass the muster, its architecture should not impinge or erode this fundamental right to privacy.”

In India, anything considered a “fundamental right” has constitutional protection and can’t be taken away, except for rare exceptions such as national security. Law officers of the federal government had argued in court that privacy was not a fundamental right and an individual’s right to their body isn’t absolute.

In support of the government’s push to incorporate the biometric data of citizens into various services, many private companies have been adopting Aadhaar, using the biometric ID number to authenticate job seekers, blood donors and loan applicants.

Aadhaar has been met with several criticisms including the government making enrollment mandatory to receive welfare benefits, and the risk that data could be used to monitor an individual’s movements and transactions.

Following the verdict, a smaller bench will now assess whether or not the mandatory use of the Aadhaar program is, in fact, legal.

“Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental right, the court can examine whether Aadhaar violates this fundamental right,” said Rahul Matthan, a privacy lawyer and partner at law firm Trilegal.

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