On 26 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India handed down a landmark ruling on the constitutionality of the biggest biometric identity system in the world, India’s Aadhaar system.
The Aadhaar was implemented in 2016, and has since acquired a billion registered users. It’s a 12-digit number issued to each resident of India, linked to biometrics including all ten fingerprints, facial photo and iris scans, and basic demographic data, all held in a central database. Since being implemented, it’s been turned to a variety of uses, including everything from proof of identification, tracking of government employee attendance, ration distribution and fraud reduction, entitlements for subsidies, and distribution of welfare benefits. The Aadhaar has quickly become mandatory for access to essential services such as bank accounts, mobile phone SIMs and passports.
Beyond banks and telcos, other private companies have also been eager to use to the Aadhaar, spurring concerns about private sector access to the database.
In 2012, a series of challenges were levelled at the Aadhaar, including that the Aadhaar violated constitutionally protected privacy rights.
In a mammoth 1448 page judgement, the Court made several key rulings:
- The Court ruled that the Aadhaar system does not in itself violate the fundamental right to privacy. However, the Court specifically called out a need for a ‘robust data protection framework’ to ensure pricy rights are protected.
- However, the Aadhaar cannot be mandatory for some purposes, including access to mobile phone services and bank accounts, as well as access to some government services, particularly education. Aadhaar-authentication will still be required for tax administration (this resolves some uncertainty from a previous ruling).
- The private sector cannot demand that an Aadhaar be provided, and private usage of the Aadhaar database is unconstitutional unless expressly authorised by law.
- The Court also specified that law enforcement access to Aadhaar data will require judicial approval, and any national security-based requests will require consultation with High Court justices (i.e., the highest court in the relevant Indian state).
- Indian citizens must be able to file complaints regarding data breaches involving the Aadhaar; prior to this judgment, the ability to file complaints regarding violations of the Aadhaar Act was limited to the government authority administering the Aadhaar system, the Unique ID Authority of India.
The Aadhaar will continue to be required for many essential government services, including welfare benefits and ration distribution – s7 of the Aadhaar Act makes Aadhaar-based authentication a pre-condition for accessing “subsidy, benefits or services” by the government. This has been one of the key concerns of Aadhaar opponents – that access to essential government services shouldn’t be dependant on Aadhaar verification. There have been allegations that people have been denied rations due to ineffective implementation of Aadhaar verification, leading to deaths.
It’s also unclear whether information collected under provisions which have now been ruled as unconstitutional – for example, Aadhaar data collected by Indian banks and telcos – will need to be deleted.
As Australia moves towards linking siloed government databases and creating its own digital identity system, India’s experience with the Aadhaar offers many lessons. A digital identity system offers many potential benefits, but all technology is a double-edged sword. Obviously, Australia will need to ensure that any digital identity system is secure but, beyond that, that the Australian public trusts the system. To obtain that trust, Australian governments will need ensure the system and the uses of the digital identity are transparent and ethical – that the system will be used in the interests of the Australian public, in accordance with clear ethical frameworks. Those frameworks will need to be flexible enough to enable interfaces with the private sector to reap the full benefits of the system, but robust enough to ensure those uses are in the public interest. Law enforcement access to government databases remains a major concern for Australians, and will need to be addressed. It’s a tightrope, and it will need to be walked very carefully indeed.
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