Most Dangerous Situation: Justice Srikrishna on EC-Aadhaar Linking
At a time when the clamour to link voter ID with Aadhaar numbers has been making headlines, Justice Srikrishna described the Election Commission’s request for a law to link electoral rolls with Aadhaar as “the most dangerous situation.”
Speaking on a range of issues related to data and privacy of citizens on 24 August, Justice (Retd) B N Srikrishna, who chaired the expert committee that drafted India’s Personal Data Protection Bill, said “I am not happy with the way the government is handling a number of things”.
In response to his views on the concerns of linking Aadhaar with voter ID of citizens, Justice Srikrishna warned that “instead of having a Cambridge Analytica you’ll have a Delhi Analytica, a Mumbai Analytica, a Calcutta Analytica. That is the danger.”
Srikrishna was speaking at an event organised by Mozilla and Internet Freedom Foundation to commemorate the second anniversary of the Justice K S Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union Of India judgment where a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court held in August 2017 said that Indians have a Constitutionally protected fundamental right to privacy .
In response to a question by The Quint on the Centre initiating several policies involving citizen data without first tabling the data protection Bill in Parliament, Srikrishna said, “In the absence of a law they are doing it, they are doing it wrongly.”
Aadhaar-Voter ID & Cambridge Analytica
In a strong criticism of the EC’s demand for Aadhaar linking, Justice Srikrishna compared the consequences of such a move to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which was found to have illegally mined, harvested and shared personal information of over 87 million Facebook users to the Trump Presidential campaign in 2016.
The UK-based political consulting firm was also reported to have shared data of citizens with political parties in India as well.
“Are we now happy with what Cambridge Analytica did? We made so much noise about it. We called them all kinds of bad names. Now you’ll have this in the country in our backyard. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”Justice (Retd) BN Srikrishna
When asked how he saw the distinction between Aadhaar being about the resident while voter ID is about Indian citizenship, Srikrishna said “it is the most dangerous situation.”
“It’s not that this data was not available with the Election Commission, the Election Commission had it. But then the Election Commission did not have access to other data. So they had only data probably of my name, address, family member, family members name, sex etc,” he said.
“Now if you add it to Aadhaar and Aadhaar adds it to my bank account then all the money in my Mauritius will also be known,” he said with a touch of humour.
EC’s Obsession With Aadhaar Linking
The EC, in a letter to the Ministry of Law & Justice, on 13 August has asked for statutory backing to collect Aadhaar numbers of new applicants in order to weed out bogus voters.
Moreover, on 14 July Delhi High Court disposed of a plea by advocate and BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay to implement an "Aadhaar-based election voting system" and has asked the EC to decide on it within 8 weeks.
It is important to note that in 2015, the EC had initiated a programme called the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Program (NERPAP) and between March and August 2015 had claimed to have seeded 32 crore Aadhaar numbers with voter IDs before the Supreme Court ordered for the programme to be stopped.
Wrong to Make Policies In the Absence of Data Protection Law
In response to a question by The Quint about the Centre selling vehicle registration and driving licence data as well as floating a tender for a nationwide facial recognition system without first enacting a law on protecting the privacy of citizen data, Srikrishna said that “they are doing it wrongly” in the absence of a law.
Taking a dig at the furious pace with which Bills were pushed through by the Centre in both houses of Parliament in the recently concluded Budget session, Srikrishna remarked, “you have the overwhelming majority and you can do it like an ATM machine where a Bill goes in and comes out as law. Such a complex subject, see what happens, in one day it will be passed.”
He, however added that the question is “what is the form in which it will be passed? “There is a famous saying in Sanskrit – a person started to make a Ganapati, a Ganesh, but what turned out was a monkey. Let’s hope that we are not made monkeys ultimately.”
‘Not Happy with the Way Govt is Handling A Number of Things’
Justice Srikrishna expressed his surprise at the private sector lobbying that followed the submission of the report and the draft Bill to the Minister for Electronics and IT, Ravi Shankar Prasad in July 2018.
“I gave a draft Bill to the government and said this is what the public has been asked to respond to. Thereafter what happened? I am also surprised that particularly on data localisation there was so much lobbying that they have put the whole thing on its head.”Justice BN Skrikrishna on the Personal Data Protection Bill
A year since its submission, the Bill is yet to be tabled in Parliament. When asked about the Bill during the debate on the Aadhaar amendment Bill, Prasad said “it is a work in progress.”
When asked if he was unhappy with the alleged lobbying with regards to data localisation in the draft Bill, he quipped “I am not happy with the way a number of things the government is handling.”
‘Data of the People, By The People & For the Government’
In what was perhaps the most applauded remark made in jest, Justice Srikrishna, on the subject of citizen data being treated as ‘public goods’ by the government said “data of the people, by the people, for the government. The last is mine.”
The Economic Survey of India, as does a number of government documents, strongly advocates for getting citizen data out of silos and merging them with the promise of it benefitting the citizens. “Now that’s a very nice way of putting it, very attractive, very seductive way of putting it. Now look at it from the point of view of the citizen,” Srikrishna said.
Sounding off a note of caution to such merging of databases, Srikrishna said, “The difficulty is not collection of data, particularly with regard to Aadhaar if you remember. The difficulty is if you can collate the data, you can profile human beings.”