Despite the plethora of overall benefits of the aadhaar system listed by the central government, there have been rising uncertainties when it comes to peoples’ privacy issues.
As of this date, over 99% of Indians aged 18 and above had been enrolled in Aadhaar. With the system enveloping a great number of the Indian adult population and with the World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer calling it as “the most sophisticated ID programme in world”, things may appear to be taking a happy turn but a study published by Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based organisation (CIS) may have a different story to tell.
In a study published on May 1, CIS found that data of over 130 million Aadhaar card holders has been leaked from just four government websites. This does not just include the personal details of the card holders but also their bank account details.
The report underlines that the security part after the collection of the data is weakly handled – “While the UIDAI has been involved in proactively pushing for other databases to get seeded with Aadhaar numbers, they take little responsibility in ensuring the security and privacy of such data,” notes the report. “…it is extremely irresponsible on the part of the UIDAI, the sole governing body for this massive project, to turn a blind eye to the lack of standards prescribed for how other bodies shall deal with such data, such cases of massive public disclosures of this data, and the myriad ways in which it may used for mischief.”
Although the Indian political history has seen many such leaks and has also observed various studies on such leaks yet never has been such a study heated up so much of a talking point.
Recently petitioners’ counsel asserts that it breaches the right to privacy and the topic was taken to the court. While petitioners exclaim that data collected by the state in the name of Aadhaar violate citizens’ privacy, the nine judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court hearing the right to privacy debate said that there is a need to define privacy and every aspect of liberty is not privacy – “need to clarify whether privacy is protected under Right to Life, Freedom of Expression or Right to Equality (Article 21, Article 19 or Article 14).”
Following the debate, the Union of India referred to two decisions of the Supreme Court in MP Sharma v. Satish Chandra, an eight-judge bench decision and Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, a six-judge bench decision. By taking these decisions into view, they argued the position of privacy as a fundamental right. The decisions in MP Sharma and Kharak Singh are based on the understanding of fundamental rights enunciated in AK Gopalan v. State of Tamil Nadu, which suggested that fundamental rights function distinctively, have an independent sphere of operation and do not intermix into one another.
However, the Gopalan set of guidelines was replaced by the ‘due process’ principles set out first by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India. These overruled the Gopalan principles and stated that Fundamental rights are not distinct bodies of operation, but form a interconnection for the protection of fundamental autonomy.
Therefore, the concept of privacy as a part of personal liberty resides in a number of rights including Articles 14, 19, 20(3) and 21. In the last few decades, this exposition of the Constitution has led to an expansive interpretation of rights, especially the Right to Life and Personal Liberty, under Article 21 bringing within it a gargantuan range of unarticulated rights.
Now, in the MP Sharma and Kharak Singh case, the opinion of the minority clearly recognized privacy to be an essential segment of personal liberty protected by Article 21. In addition to this, it opined that fundamental rights cannot be considered watertight compartments and laws must act in accordance with with the entire body of rights. On the other hand, the majority view in this case declined to recognize the existence of a privacy right.
According to a supreme court judge, “Right to privacy is not absolute” but an important thing to understand is that no right is completely absolute. Rules and rights have their own restrictions. It is necessary that the Supreme Court set the boundaries for reasonable restrictions with respect to a fundamental right to privacy.