Milind Deora column: Govt must act to protect Aadhaar data, not brush aside its vulnerability

Aadhaar has now entered a controversial territory, and its perception has morphed from a data-driven public service to connotations of an all-encompassing, Big Brother-esque, almost voyeuristic intrusion into the private lives of citizens.

Milind Deora January 13, 2018 15:04:21 IST
Milind Deora column: Govt must act to protect Aadhaar data, not brush aside its vulnerability

The recent breach of Aadhaar data of millions of Indians, on sale for a sum of Rs 500, was a truly worrisome revelation for the country. For us in the UPA government, it is hard to fathom how Aadhaar is now being employed as a snooping tool by the current government.

Milind Deora column Govt must act to protect Aadhaar data not brush aside its vulnerability

A woman goes through the process of eye scanning for Unique Identification (UID) database system. Reuters

We had rather envisioned it as a mechanism to supplement and streamline governance, and I personally perceived it as part of the larger apparatus of the National e-governance Plan. For us, it was about leveraging Information and Communications Technologies to eliminate wastage and optimally target beneficiaries.

Unfortunately, Aadhaar has now entered a controversial territory, and its perception has morphed from a data-driven public service to connotations of an all-encompassing, Big Brother-esque, almost voyeuristic intrusion into the private lives of citizens.

I’m largely in favour of governments leveraging big data and technology, albeit with caveats and a privacy law in place, by monitoring, for instance, purchases on a credit card or online search history, in order to determine whether an individual could potentially indulge in a dangerous activity. This is indispensable for India’s counterterrorism effort and the preservation of national security. However, it is also the responsibility of the government to establish adequate safeguards to ensure that the data of private citizens isn’t leaked or misused.

It was keeping that very philosophy in mind that the Supreme Court recently declared privacy a fundamental right. One would think that this judgment was a slap on the wrist for a government that is trying to transform Aadhaar into a snooping tool, and would provide the impetus for rectifying this brazenness. In light of the judgment, one would expect the government to fast-track the conception of a roadmap and timeframe delineating proposed measures to codify the Supreme Court order into law and to initiate a debate on what privacy means to Indians and how to best navigate it in the Indian context.

Instead of safeguarding citizens’ data that the government has been entrusted with, we are met with a blasé administration which has allowed a serious lapse in privacy and security, exposed by an investigative journalist, which proves that our data is not only vulnerable to vested interests in India but can potentially be accessed and misused by external threats. In the backdrop of the Supreme Court order, this opportunity should ideally have been used to carve a unique Indian notion of privacy, as well to plug gaps in order to prevent data leaks and establish legal safeguards to protect our data.

The government’s entire attitude with regards to our private data screams brazenness. Edward Snowden, a whistle-blower against unlawful snooping by the state who exposed the US government’s surveillance programme Prism, said in a tweet that the blame solely lies with the UIDAI, and that if the government were truly concerned about justice, it "would be reforming the policies that destroyed the privacy of a billion Indians".

The government is currently like an ostrich with its head in the sand with regards to the privacy debate in India. The world over, in progressive liberal democracies such as our own, governments are partnering with their citizens to balance out issues of privacy versus security. It is time that the government of India takes its head out of the sand, rises to the occasion, and displays the same level of maturity.

The author is a former member of Parliament and has served as minister for communication and IT, and shipping and ports.

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