The Supreme Court is likely to deliver its verdict on a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Aadhaar, according to several media reports.
The Aadhaar hearing, the second-longest in the history of the Supreme Court, had the apex court hearing some 27 petitions which called Aadhaar a violation of the right to privacy.
What is Aadhaar?
Launched in 2009, Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) based on a person's biometric details including fingerprints, iris scans. Essentially, Aadhaar makes a massive database of the personal information of over 1 billion people in India.
When the project began, it was initially used to improve the delivery of welfare services. It was also aimed at making it simpler for people to identify themselves and making it easier for businesses and start-ups to use data.
Eventually, the scope of Aadhaar was expanded by the government. Aadhaar was linked with various essential services, like bank accounts, PAN card, passports and mobile connections.
Controversy surrounding Aadhaar
With the increasing number of services that Aadhaar was being linked with, questions began emerging about whether it was safe for the government to store the biometric and personal information of so many people on a single platform.
In November 2017, the UIDAI admitted that over 200 central and state government websites had publicly displayed details such as names and addresses of some Aadhaar beneficiaries, PTI reported.
The Aadhaar-issuing body had added, in response to an RTI query, that it took note of the breach and got the data removed from those websites. It had not specified when the breach took place.
In January 2018, The Tribune claimed in a report that it was able to access every single detail of any person submitted for Aadhaar to the UIDAI: including names, addresses, postal codes, photographs, phone numbers and emails.
The report said The Tribune was able to 'purchase' a service offered by anonymous sellers over WhatsApp for unrestricted access to the over 1 billion Aadhaar numbers.
"It took just Rs 500, paid through Paytm, and 10 minutes in which an 'agent' of the group running the racket created a “gateway” for this correspondent and gave a login ID and password. Lo and behold, you could enter any Aadhaar number in the portal, and instantly get all particulars that an individual may have submitted to the UIDAI," the report said.
The Tribune report caused such an uproar that the Delhi Police lodged an FIR naming The Tribune reporter.
Aadhaar has also created concerns over whether the benefits of subsidies and welfare schemes will reach those who do not have an Aadhaar card.
For instance, a Reuters report published on 12 September quoted activists as saying 14 people died of starvation in Jharkhand since authorities cancelled old handwritten government ration cards last year and replaced them with the biometric Aadhaar card to weed out bogus beneficiaries.
Some of the poor have not enrolled in the programme, or their fingerprints do not match those on the database, the largest in the world. Others suffer because the identification system requires functioning electricity, an internet connection and operational servers, not always assured in interior India.
In December 2017, the widow of a security personnel who died in the Kargil war passed away in a private hospital in Haryana's Sonipat after the medical staff allegedly refused to admit her for not carrying her Aadhaar card.
The legal battle against Aadhaar
A five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice AK Sikri, Justice AM Khanwilkar, Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Ashok Bhushan reserved the verdict on the batch of petitions challenging the validity of Aadhaar on 10 May after hearing the petitions for over 38 days, starting 17 January.
Prior to this, the matter was taken up on 14 December when the court heard a plea for interim relief for extending embargo on the government and its departments insisting on Aadhaar for availing various services and benefits. The interim order was pronounced the next day. The petition challenging the Aadhaar scheme—when it had no statutory backing which eventually came by the 2016 Aadhaar Act—was first moved by retired judge of the Karnataka High Court Justice KS Puttaswamy.
The plea was later joined by a number of other petitioners including Magsaysay awardee Shanta Sinha, feminist researcher Kalyani Sen Menon, social activists Aruna Roy, Nikhil De, Nachiket Udupa, CPI leader Binoy Visman and others.
The legal battle against Aadhaar from day one was led by senior counsel Shyam Divan who appeared for Justice Puttaswamy and later represented the other petitioners. The central government was particularly piqued over Divan comparing the collection of Aadhaar data to a "concentration camp", "totalitarian regime" or to that of an "electronic leash".
The hearing also saw the UIDAI assuring the court that the demographic and biometric data collected under Aadhaar was absolutely safe without any scope of its being intruded upon. The UIDAI told the court that it would require the "age of the universe" to crack the single data stored in encrypted form.
While holding that the individual data is a goldmine of commercial information, the court in the course of the hearing had said that Aadhaar was not a catch for all the frauds. The court also expressed concern over the safety of the demographic and biometric data collected.
An offshoot of the challenge to the Aadhaar scheme on the grounds of it being violative of the right to privacy was that a nine-judge constitution bench of the apex court examined the issue in August 2017 and held that the right to privacy was a fundamental right.
The judgment, which will have a bearing on the lives of all Indians, said that "the right to privacy is protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution."
However, the Supreme Court also given a ray of hope to the embattled government over the Aadhaar scheme and said: "We commend to the Union government the need to examine and put into place a robust regime for data protection. The creation of such a regime requires a careful and sensitive balance between individual interests and legitimate concerns of the state. The legitimate aims of the State would include for instance protecting national security, preventing and investigating crime, encouraging innovation and the spread of knowledge, and preventing the dissipation of social welfare benefits."
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2018 00:01:00 IST