Much of the fears that have been raised around security of the data in the Aadhar ecosystem has been rightly addressed by the Apex Court, and now its benefits are again going ahead
In a historic judgment of the five-judge constitution bench, the Supreme Court has decided that the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, is constitutionally valid. However, it has also struck down some of the provisions of the said Act and addressed most of the concerns that the petitioners had raised regarding the privacy, security and the rights of individuals in the pursuit of enabling an Aadhar enabled ecosystem. In its 4:1 majority judgment, the learned bench has set the course for the progressive march of the technology-enabled governance and given the stamp to one of the boldest programs anywhere in the world for seeking the unique identity for authentication and optimal governance delivery mechanism.
Ever since the verdict of the Supreme Court in August 2017 pronouncing privacy as a fundamental right, there have been a lot of close observations from various stakeholders as the case was being argued and more related petitions were filed and were impleaded with the existing cases. The Constitution bench heard arguments for more than four months this year making it the second longest oral hearing in the history of the apex court just next to the famous Kesavanada Bharati Case (1973) where the apex court ruled that the basic structure of the Constitution could not be altered. The fact that good governance was being more defined, directed and attained with the help of technology also resulted in regular fears in circles to the extent to which technology would remain harmless and not infringe upon an individual’s rights.
Pertinently the judgment while upholding the constitutional validity also observed, read down and struck down few provisions which were seen to be not serving the best public good. Some of the major decisions in that direction are that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for school admissions nor for obtaining government benefits for children. Aadhar couldn’t be made mandatory for obtaining mobile connection as for the opening of bank accounts and related financial investments. However, linking Aadhaar with permanent account number (PAN) and income tax remains a necessity and rightly so.
The judgment has given the fillip to the Modi government to take the next steps towards more avenue of digital reach out and enhanced the reach of Digital India. The overall picture presented by the judgement is a stamp towards technology orient d governance and at the same time taking each and every step keeping the larger public good in mindLikewise, the court has set that demographic and biometric data to the minimum should be collected and data couldn’t be stored for more than six months. The majority decision has ruled that the creation of metadata and its analysis was not possible. The enhancement of data protection has been emphasised. A significant direction provided by the judgment is that Aadhaar cannot be used by private corporations and also the state and government entities cannot enter into any contract with such private companies for sharing of data.
Benefits of Aadhar
Aadhaar was conceptualised in the year 2006 and launched in the year 2009 and covered by an Act Of parliament in 2016 has secured the enrolment of almost 122 crore people in this country. Aadhaar helped the government to optimise the public delivery system and ensure targeted, real-time and auditable delivery of services and benefits and subsidies. These aspects have been specifically mentioned in the World Bank’s Development Report on Digital Dividends 2016.
The 12 digit Aadhar number assigned to an individual is a unique identification number that contains demographic and personal information along with biometric information that covers photograph, fingerprint, iris scan, or such other biological attributes of an individual as specified by regulations. All of the information is stored in the Central Identities Data Repository (CIDR) which is the centralised database and is defined as a protected system as a critical information infrastructure protection under the provisions of section 70B of the Information Technology Act 2008. Happy Maximum security with levels of encryption is manured for CIDR, and the authentication ecosystem and UIDAI work in a trusted framework. All service providers using the system only receive a yes or no answer for authentication, and so the question of information travelling out or being leaked is next to impossible.
Fears Addressed and Resolved
Much of the fears that have been raised around security of the data in the Aadhar ecosystem has been rightly addressed in the judgement, and the majority ruling has shown its confidence at the security practices in place as informed by UIDAI under affidavit. However, security is a dynamic issue, and there is no reason to believe that the UIDAI would not take more proactive steps both technology and process-wise to keep the data and operations security to the highest standards. Its history of improving processes and also refusing to part with information even to a High Court directive is a clear indicator of the intent of UIDAI.
Aadhar number is not a secret number, but a sensitive personal data and best practices and also laws define its safe usage. With someone’s name and Aadhar number, no transactions or authentication can be done. With the introduction of additional parameters like Virtual Aadhaar ID which masks the original Aadhar number and the introduction of face recognition, security measures have been further enhanced. The further biometric information contained in CIDR is secured to the highest encryption standards, and the common user should have no fear. It will be very useful for UIDAI and the technology community to ensure that trust in the system is better projected to the people so that the media stories sounding ‘breaches’ are reported with sensitivity.
The judge has given the fillip to the Modi government to take the next steps towards more avenue of digital reach out and enhanced the reach of Digital India. The overall picture presented by the judgement is a stamp towards technology orient d governance and at the same time taking every step keeping the larger public good in mind. Very significantly the court observed ‘As against the above larger public interest, the invasion into the privacy rights of these beneficiaries is minimal. By no means can it be said that it has a disproportionate effect on the right holder’. That will and should be the guiding principle in a welfare state that has to take care of its citizens.
(The writer is former country head of General Dynamics and writes on technology and policy issues)