The historic Supreme Court verdict on Thursday has forced the Narendra Modi government to acknowledge that right to privacy is not just a common-law right but a fundamental right of the citizens assured by the constitution. Hopefully, the verdict will enable any common man to challenge any demand either made by the government or private parties seeking his personal data. Also now he has a right to demand protection for his personal data, including his biometrics, which he has already shared with various agencies and companies.
Had the government brought in a law earlier on to address the privacy concerns Aadhaar raises, the issue would not have reached this point. Right to privacy is a given in a democracy. It is not something that is enforced by a court of law but a basic promise to a democracy’s stakeholders. It is the job of the elected government keep that promise. But, ironically, here the government’s lawyers have been arguing that right to privacy cannot be a fundamental right but a common law right.
What complicated the matters was that even when the privacy issue was in the Supreme Court, the government has been expanding the ambit of Aadhaar rapidly to a range of activities, including transfer of government benefits, filing of income tax returns and operating bank accounts. Even mobile companies have begun to ask their customers to link their Aadhaar card with the phone number. Evidently, this irked the anti-Aadhaar lobby, carried the arguments to the apex court room and finally saw the Supreme Court defining right to privacy as a fundamental right. This is what happened in a nutshell.
And the result is the validity of Aadhaar itself can now be questioned through existing and fresh litigation. The very concept of Aadhaar is based on recording an individual’s biometric data, according him/her a unique number and mapping all of his/her activities to that number. This makes it easy for the authorities to monitor its citizens.
By increasing the ambit of Aadhaar, the government was getting aggressive. With the court ruling that privacy is a fundamental right, all the notifications issued by the government making Aadhaar mandatory will be questioned. Will Aadhaar go back to what it was meant originally — a tool for government to transfer government benefits to beneficiary bank accounts? One needs to wait and watch.
Aadhaar had raised privacy concerns even during the UPA days. In fact, going by the Aadhaar Act, even the Unique Identification Authority of India cannot share the personal information available under Aadhaar records with any agency unless there is an order from a district judge. On issues of national security, only a joint secretary level officer can authorise access of personal data, that too after getting an order from the central government. But, that’s in theory. There have been reports of Aadhaar data leakage. This is what raised widespread concerns.