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Aadhaar case: SC questions aggregation of personal data under scheme after Centre begins its argument

The Centre began its arguments in the Aadhaar case after petitioners raised the issue of “privacy, anonymity, dignity, surveillance, aggregation, presumptive criminality, unconstitutional conditions, absence of a law, security”.

india Updated: Mar 22, 2018 00:01 IST
Bhadra Sinha
Bhadra Sinha
Press Trust of India, New Delhi
Aadhaar case,Aadhaar,Aadhaar case in Supreme Court
A customer gives their thumb impression to withdraw money from a bank account using their Aadhaar number. (AFP File Photo)

The Supreme Court asked the Centre on Wednesday to address the concerns of Aadhaar opponents that data collected for the unique identification system could lead to mass virtual surveillance and deprive those who lack the biometric ID of the benefits of state welfare programmes.

Attorney General KK Venugopal,the country’s top law officer, held out an assurance that the government will not deny citizens the benefits they are entitled to if their 12-digit unique identity number authentication fails, so long as they have an alternative ID proof. He also sought to allay concerns over Aadhaar by offering a powerpoint presentation by the chief of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which oversees Aadhaar, before the court.

Based on the arguments advanced by 30 petitioners challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra posed six questions for the attorney general to answer.

The top court asked if the collection of data for Aadhaar could lead to a “path of surveillance” that may not be physical but virtual, and whether it could create a “’stalking culture” under which every citizen would be seen as a potential wrongdoer.

It asked the Centre whether it could impose a scheme on citizens, who should be given an alternative to exit from the scheme, and whether data on individuals collected before the Aadhaar Act was put in 2016 shouldn’t be destroyed.

The top court asked if the data collected under Aadhaar was safe despite assurances that measures have been taken to protect it, and finally, it wanted to know if steps taken to secure the data could prove counter-productive.

“Petitioners rely on privacy and say ‘my individual dignity cannot be compromised.’ They say ‘I love my anonymity and my privacy is my preserve,”’ CJI Misra told Venugopal while framing the questions.

The bench wondered how pension can be refused to government employees who earn the money for the services they have rendered just because they do not have an Aadhaar number.

“There is no question of a bogus pension account, which nobody other than the individual operates. A pensioner could be 80 years old or suffering from a disease, making it impossible for him to authenticate his or her Aadhaar number.. or a pensioner may be staying abroad and does not have Aadhaar. How can you stop their pension?” the court asked the AG, who assured the court on behalf of the government that nobody would be denied benefits that are due to them that if authentication under Aadhaar failed.

Voicing its concern, the bench said Aadhar could not become a tool of financial exclusion.

The court also asked Venugopal to explain why it wasn’t possible to follow the Singapore model in which where every citizen does have a unique identity number, but in the form of an individual chip. “If it is meant for identification then why do you want to store data,” the court asked.

Arguments on behalf of the petitioners, who included social activists and a retired high court judge, concluded on Tuesday, two months after the marathon hearing in the case began.

One of the main grounds on which the petitioners have questioned Aadhaar is that it could intrude on individual privacy, and collection of biometrics such as iris scans and fingerprints violate physical integrity. Concerns have also been raised over the possible leakage of data collected and stored in the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR).

Beginning the Centre’s defence of Aadhaar on Wednesday, Venugopal sought the bench’s permission to advance a powerpoint presentation by the CEO of UIDAI. The court, however, asked him to provide a copy of the presentation in word format.

Venugopal also tried to allay the fears surrounding the safety of data collected with an assertion that strict measures have been put in place to secure the data. The repository is in a building that has 10 feet high and 4 feet thick walls. A four-minute video in the powerpoint presentation would demonstrate the security arrangements that have been made, he said.

Sixty committees were constituted to study the scheme before the Aadhaar Act was enforced in 2016. “It’s not a fly-by- night effort to get brownie points but a serious attempt to insulate the people from corruption and middlemen who steal food and jobs of the poor,” Venugopal argued, citing the reasons for introducing Aadhaar.

The National Democratic Alliance government has been pushing Aadhaar after making it the bedrock of state-run welfare programs, online financial transactions and also the tax administration.

Venugopal referred to late former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s remark in which he said only 15 paise out of every rupee allocated to anti-poverty projects reached the poor. The core aim of Aadhaar is to protect the money allocated for the deprived sections from leakages, he said.

The right to live with dignity, food, education and shelter is also part of the fundamental right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution. The disadvantage group cannot be denied the same right on the premise that the privacy of the elite is being curtailed, Venugopal said.

The bench reminded him that the petitioners too had raised the privacy argument vis-à-vis their right to live with dignity and even the poor have an equal right to privacy.

The Attorney General replied: “As far as privacy is concerned it is at the lowest level (of the fundamental right to life and liberty) . But the court needs to strike a balance.”

First Published: Mar 21, 2018 21:50 IST