Big Aadhar win, some disappointments PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 27 September 2018 04:07
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SC says it doesn’t violate privacy or allow surveillance; rulings on bank/mobile linking unfortunate, so change law to fix this


Though privacy activists and Opposition parties like the Congress campaigned aggressively against Aadhaar, saying it would allow the creation of user profiles, violating the right to privacy and “lead to a surveillance state where each individual can be kept under surveillance by creating his/her life profile and movement as well as on his/her use of Aadhaar”, the Supreme Court has resoundingly quashed this argument in a 4:1 judgment. To that extent, the SC ruling is a shot in the arm for the government and a vindication of the original Congress policy to introduce Aadhaar—finance minister Arun Jaitley complimented Nandan Nilekani for his sterling effort—even though it changed its mind once Narendra Modi adopted it with gusto.

Even at that point, it was clear, the comparisons with Cambridge Analytica, and the personal data it stole of 90 million Facebook users, were exaggerated since Aadhaar had a limited database—so, if you used AadhaarPay, the details of the purchase remained with the shop and your bank, not Aadhaar/UIDAI. Google, by comparison, knew where you were and where you ate. Indeed, the Election Commission website allows you to access data on names and addresses, a voter’s father’s/spouse’s name, and various municipal records are open enough to allow anyone to know what a property is worth, how much tax has been paid, when it was built, along with the phone number/e-mail of the owner.


In other words, there was always a lot more data on people available publicly. In even the pre-Aadhaar days, governments put out data on, say, MGNREGA, with bank account numbers and other details of beneficiaries—all in the name of transparency! Indeed, when The Tribune reporter said she had got access to a billion Aadhaar numbers by paying just Rs 500, this newspaper argued she couldn’t have got anyone’s details since, while 100,000 crore Aadhaars could be theoretically generated given each ID is a 12-digit string, UIDAI had issued just 120 crore Aadhaar IDs. Which is why, when the Trai chief tweeted his Aadhaar number, no one could get his personal details or biometrics from the UIDAI database or withdraw money from his Aadhaar-linked bank account.

Apart from huge savings of around Rs 1 lakh crore made using Aadhaar-based cash transfers —over 27 mn fake ration cards were eliminated—Aadhaar has helped catch several other frauds. While the media made much of the Maharashtra farm loan scam where thousands of farmers had the same Aadhaar and bank account numbers, the scam was discovered by UIDAI. More recently, when 2.2 lakh tonnes of wheat and sugar were pilfered in ration shops in UP by altering the ration-shop database, this too was caught by UIDAI/Aadhaar.

Over time, UIDAI has also introduced more security and other features to address problems like exclusion—due to fingerprints getting erased for those doing manual labour. A Virtual ID allows you to generate a random number—as often as you want—so that your Aadhaar number is never given out. UID tokens stop phone companies, say, from downloading Aadhaars when people give them this number to get a phone connection.

Some sections of the Aadhaar Act, like 33(2), that mandate data-sharing with the government for national security, were an invasion of privacy, and SC has done well to strike them down. Though activists and the Congress welcomed SC banning Aadhaar linking with bank accounts and mobile phones, the court has erred here. While the PAN linkage with Aadhaar has been upheld, people can use fake PANs to open bank accounts and not declare these accounts—and the money in them—to the taxman since banks will no longer do Aadhaar-based online verification. In which case, the government will do well to, say, legislate all banks do online Aadhaar verification of PAN. Not insisting on Aadhaar verification for phones can mean kidnappers and terrorists can buy SIM cards using fake IDs.

Given the government has been trying to use Aadhaar for more than just payment of subsidies, perhaps Justice Chandrachud was right in his observation that the government was wrong in passing it as a Money Bill—finance minister Jaitley, though, has given examples of how the Congress had used the same method to pass certain laws in the past. But, given how even preventing tax theft—through linking bank accounts with Aadhaar—involves government money, surely the Money Bill move was justified?

Limiting the use of Aadhaar to just subsidies and reading down Section 57 suggests SC hasn’t really understood just how much Aadhaar will increase efficiency in the country. Reading down Section 57 means banks and fintech firms can no longer do e-verification of clients using Aadhaar; this will hike costs of verification, slow it down dramatically, and deal a blow to the fintech industry. Given the long-drawn battle to ensure Aadhaar was not struck down as illegal by the courts, though, the country should be happy with the victory that has been achieved; other Aadhaar-related battles can be fought another day.



Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 September 2018 04:27 )

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