India’s top court has ruled citizens have a fundamental right to privacy, a potential setback to the government’s plan of using its vast biometric identification program in everything from mobile connections to income-tax filings.
In an unanimous verdict nine judges of the Supreme Court ruled that privacy was a part of the fundamental right to life and liberty guaranteed under the country’s constitution.
“Right to privacy is an intrinsic part of right to life,” Chief Justice J.S. Khehar said while reading out the verdict.
The ruling by a rare nine-judge bench came after a referral from a smaller panel hearing a challenge to India’s biometric identity program, Aadhaar, which has signed up more than one billion Indians. It also will impact the workings of a host of global corporations in India such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google search engine, Facebook’s social network and its WhatsApp messaging platform as well as technology companies like Apple and Uber, which deal with the data of individual users on a day-to-day basis.
Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in Hindi, is a 12-digit number provided to citizens after collecting their biometric information — finger prints and an iris scan — along with demographic details and a mobile phone number. It was originally designed to stop the pilfering by middlemen of government subsidies for the poor, by underpinning a citizen’s I.D. with biometric data, and to save money as the government doles out social security benefits.
The Aadhaar program has gradually become a key component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to make India a cashless society. Modi’s government has attempted to make Aadhaar compulsory for a number of government services ranging from school meals for students to paying taxes, raising concerns about privacy and data theft.
“Aadhaar’s architecture will now have to be tested on the touchstone of privacy being a fundamental right,” said lawyer Sajan Poovayya, who represents lawmaker and entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar, one of the petitioners. “If Aadhaar has to pass the muster, its architecture should not impinge or erode this fundamental right to privacy.”
In India, anything considered a “fundamental right” has constitutional protection and can’t be taken away, except for rare exceptions such as national security. Law officers of the federal government had argued in court that privacy was not a fundamental right and an individual’s right to their body isn’t absolute.
Sensing the government’s eagerness to incorporate biometric data in citizens’ daily lives, private companies have been enthusiastically adopting Aadhaar, using it to authenticate job seekers, blood donors and loan applicants. Samsung offers devices with Aadhaar-compliant iris scanners embedded, while Microsoft integrated the biometrics into its Skype video-chatting service so users can authenticate themselves using the government database.
Some of the arguments against Aadhaar have focused on the government’s decision to make enrollment compulsory to receive welfare benefits. Another concern raised was that data could be used to track a person’s movements and transactions. Petitioners cited several instances of numbers and personal details being leaked or sold online.
The legal validity of mandatory use of the Aadhaar program will now be scrutinized by a smaller bench in light of the verdict on Thursday.
“Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental right, the court can examine whether Aadhaar violates this fundamental right,” said Rahul Matthan, a privacy lawyer and partner at law firm Trilegal.
(From The Washington Post Syndicated News Service)