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Friday, Nov 22, 2019

Information collected for implementing social schemes not a breach of privacy: SC

While hearing petitions on the same issue, the apex court also revisited previous verdicts that rejected the idea of privacy being sacred.

india Updated: Jul 20, 2017 22:48 IST
Bhadra Sinha
Bhadra Sinha
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The government’s move to link Aadhaar to receiving a string of social service schemes has come under criticism from activists who claim it is a breach of privacy.
The government’s move to link Aadhaar to receiving a string of social service schemes has come under criticism from activists who claim it is a breach of privacy.(HT FIle Photo)

Data collection for handing social benefits doesn’t invade people’s privacy, the Supreme Court said on Thursday in a case that could have a bearing on the government’s push to link Aadhaar with a string of services and schemes.

A nine-member constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar, made the remark during a hearing to determine if privacy is a fundamental right.

“Mere collection of data by the state to identify those who can benefit out of a socio-economic programme may not amount to impinging someone’s privacy,” it said.

Privacy rights became a hotly debated subject after the NDA government’s move to make Aadhaar, a 12-digit identification number, mandatory for people to become social welfare beneficiaries. Besides, people are now required to link Aadhaar with their personal account number, or PAN, for filing income tax returns.

The petitioners in the Aadhaar case argue that privacy is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution and, hence, gathering a person’s personal and biometric details breaches the privilege.

The government rebuts the argument and has taken a stand based on the top court’s previous verdicts that say privacy is not an inviolable right.

The bench is revisiting the two judgments as well.

Chief Justice Khehar proposed a formula to define the right to privacy.

“I think whenever an action bothers one’s dignity we could probably say it violates that person’s privacy. Dignity flows out of liberty and privacy flows out of dignity,” he said.

“If government recognizes dignity then privacy has to be protected.”

On the second day of the hearing, the debate was on how far can a person assert his right to privacy and remain anonymous in this age of the all-intrusive internet.

Justice DY Chandrachud, a member of the bench, said all depends on whether the data were used for legitimate or illegal purposes.

“What is wrong if the government wants to put in place socio-economic programmes and have data to identify people who can be the beneficiaries? But if profiling is done then that could impinge one’s privacy,” he told senior counsel Anand Grover, representing petitioner and social activist Aruna Roy.

Justice Chandrachud illustrated his point with queries.

“Can a man say I want a passport but would not furnish details of my parents or spouse in the form prescribed? How far a citizen can say I will remain anonymous, especially when the state conducts census, surveys, etc. and collate all information?” he asked.

Grover agreed that identification was not a problem but trouble begins when the government starts tracking people, an apprehension expressed in the Aadhaar case.

“Data are made available to the private sector, which is not under anybody’s control,” he said.

But Justice Chandrachud wondered if 99% of citizens are “unconcerned” about sharing personal data with private players, how is it different if the state has the same information?

The counsel asked the court not to define privacy but just indicate parameters to determine privacy infringements.

“It could be whether state interest is so compelling that one’s privacy has to be done away with,” he suggested.

Senior advocate S Poovaya highlighted how the British government destroyed data collected for an identification project after a new law said the system violated privacy rights.

The hearing on Thursday ended with all petitioners completing their arguments. The attorney general will speak in court during the next hearing on July 25 to report the government’s stand.