Opponents of India’s ID card system win court victory

By on 03/09/2017 | Updated on 04/02/2022
The Supreme Court of India have recognised privacy as a fundamental human right (Image courtesy Wikipedia/Legaleagle86).

The Indian Supreme Court has recognised privacy as a fundamental human right, in a case brought by rights campaigners challenging the government’s roll-out of a massive digital identity database.

Campaigners have brought over 25 petitions to court in attempts to block some of the potential uses of the Indian government’s ‘Aadhar’ Unique Identification (UID) number programme, which is ostensibly designed to streamline management of benefits payments and tax collection and to clamp down on fraud and other criminal activity.

“The government’s main argument in the matter was that right to privacy does not exist in the Constitution and that it was an elitist concern. The Supreme Court has correctly observed that it is wrong to say so,” Gopal Krishna, a rights campaigner who worked closely with the various petitioners in the case, told Global Government Forum.

Mission creep

Campaigners believe that the government intends to expand the use of UID well beyond interactions with government, and Indian media outlets have reported that citizens may have to give their UID number when buying rail tickets or making retail purchases. But Senior Supreme Court lawyer and transparency activist Prashant Bhushan told Global Government Forum that while the government is within its rights to track, for example, the movements of an individual under investigation or dubious financial transactions, “they need not know if I book a train ticket or shop.”

The government may gather sensitive information on its citizens in pursuit of a “compelling state interest”, Bhushan explained, and its amendments to the Income Tax Act permit it to track some financial transactions. But any extension of the Aadhar scheme beyond these limited goals would be “illegal”, he argued.

Following the 24 August Supreme Court ruling, a smaller bench of judges will decide the implications of the judgement. Campaigners hope that the courts will head off government plans to extend UID – which already covers almost 90% of the population – to include a biometric database. Since the verdict, the government has signaled its intention to operate the UID scheme within the “reasonable restrictions” to which fundamental rights may be subject.

Rights and wrongs

However, Gopal Krishna argued that such rights are “absolute”, noting that “the government or the Supreme Court do not grant these rights. They are natural rights and part of human dignity. The government or the Supreme Court only recognises them.”

“Restrictions are the exemptions placed on them on a case-by-case basis following the due process of law,” he added. “But an exemption cannot be a rule. By speaking of restrictions on these rights, the government is looking for a cover after the verdict.”

As well as his challenging the excessive gathering of data on UID users, Krishna said, the 25-plus petitions “include concerns over issues of national security as foreign companies are involved in collecting the information and it has been alleged that they have links with foreign intelligence agencies.”

India’s UID scheme is almost unique among digital ID projects in its vast scale and the range of its applications, which include automated payments of state subsidies and benefits, and a facility enabling users to make remote digital payments to business and individuals. But the government will have to either find a way through the legal obstacles thrown up by campaigners, or compromise on some of its other potential uses.

About Abhimanyu Kumar

Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in New Delhi, India. He writes on issues related to politics and governance for Indian and foreign media. He was previously with The Hindu and The Sunday Guardian.

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