An Aadhaar biometric identity card, issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), is arranged for a photograph in Mumbai, India (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

World's Largest Digital ID Plan Gets Top India Court Backing

(Bloomberg) -- India’s top court has refused to scrap the world’s largest biometric database, upholding the validity of the sprawling digital-identity program but imposing restrictions on its use -- including preventing the government from sharing citizens’ data with private companies.

Four out of five Supreme Court judges said the program is constitutionally sound for the distribution of state-sponsored welfare subsidies in a country where nearly a quarter of the 1.3 billion-strong population is poor. However, it cannot be made mandatory for opening bank accounts or providing mobile-phone connections, Justice A.K. Sikri told the courtroom, though it is required for Indians paying income tax.

Under the Aadhaar program, a unique 12-digit identification number is assigned to Indians after collecting their biometric data and photographs. With the top court’s backing, the government can continue to expand its identification system for state subsidies and services in line with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals that call for providing an identity for all by 2030.

The ruling will not significantly hold back Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Digital India’ push to move government services and subsidies into the digital realm. The verdict is also likely to clear up widespread confusion after Indians were asked to link their Aadhaar number to maintain their bank accounts and mobile-phone connections.

Privacy Concerns

The ruling follows petitions by activists and lawyers, who argued the program violates citizens’ privacy and creates a surveillance state by building a central repository for data linked to all services. The government and the program’s operating authority have denied such claims, saying surveillance using Aadhaar was not possible and that the data was safe.

Justice Sikri, speaking on behalf of three judges, said Aadhaar would not lead to a surveillance state because the data was kept in silos. The program’s invasion of privacy was minimal and served a much larger public interest by providing identities to India’s poor and marginalized citizens, Sikri said.

“After going through the Aadhaar scheme and structure, it is difficult to profile a person on the basis of minimal biometric information collected,” Sikri told the court, adding that sufficient data security safeguards exist.

In a dissenting verdict, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said the entire program was unconstitutional and had the potential for misuse and mass surveillance.

Single Identifier

Praised by the World Bank, several countries such as the Philippines and Bangladesh have shown interest in replicating the program. A number of small and large tech companies have also adopted its use for purposes such as user authentication and payment services.

The “fairly balanced” judgment heard both sides of the Aadhaar argument, but will still prompt a change by forcing holdouts to finally get an Aadhaar card, said Bedavyasa Mohanty, an associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi.

“It’s a setback, but not a huge setback,” Mohanty said. “People are now required to get it, but there are restrictions.”

In 2009, the program -- conceptualized by Infosys Ltd. co-founder Nandan Nilekani -- was envisioned as a cost-saving tool that could improve the delivery of services and subsidies to India’s poor. Since then, Aadhaar, which means foundation in Hindi, has transformed into a single identifier for all programs and services such as enrolling children in school and getting marriage certificates.

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