Labelling Aadhaar as mass surveillance tool created by Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and supported by those in power for political benefits, globally known whistleblower Edward Snowden has warned that due to linking the UID with everything, Indians could face a civil death.
He also recommended criminal penalty, including jail, for anyone demanding Aadhaar for providing a service that is unrelated with social benefits from the government.
Speaking at the fifth edition of ‘Talk Journalism’ in Jaipur via video conferencing on 11 August 2018, Mr Snowden, who exposed mass surveillance programmes run by the US government, intelligence agencies and big corporations, warned about excessive abuse and privacy violation through demanding Aadhaar for everything by the government and private players.
“You will be tracked, monitored, and recorded in a hundred different ways and not just by UIDAI, but by the Aadhaar number they created that is being used by every other company and every other group in society,” Mr Snowden said.
"There should be a criminal penalty on those seeking Aadhaar number for providing any service and they should be sent to jail, if required, for this crime. It has become so vulnerable that if you search a number on the internet, you will get all information of a person," Mr Snowden said while referring to the RS Sharma Aadhaar exposure episode.
Moments after RS Sharma, chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), shared his Aadhaar number on Twitter with a challenge to 'harm him' on 28 July 2018, several people revealed his personal information, like permanent account number (PAN), his date of birth, mobile numbers, and residential address. Some even claimed to have created a profile on e-shopping sites using these credentials. (Read: Aadhaar: TRAI chief RS Sharma's challenge boomeranged as his personal info gets disclosed)
Snowden feels Aadhaar should be used only for social benefit from the government and not for any other service from the government as well as private players. "The biggest crime behind this system is that it is being used for things that are unrelated to what the Government is paying for. To open a bank account, to buy a train ticket, or for more and more services they are demanding not just the number but physical (biometric) verification of your ID card. All these players and corporates have 100 ways of monitoring and abusing your privacy through this system," he added.
Commenting on how the UIDAI phone number landed on all Android phones in the country, Snowden raised questions on user rights and privacy in India. A few days ago, millions of Android phone users found UIDAI helpline number 1800-300-1947 in their contact list. While UIDAI tried to distance itself from the helpline number controversy, Google took the blame. It stated, in 2014, the UIDAI helpline number was 'inadvertently coded' in Android release given to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or mobile makers.
Mr Snowden, however, expressed concern over this explanation from Google and overall the episode where a number was 'pushed' in mobile phones without the knowledge or explicit consent from the user. He said, “Google has about 95% or so market share in India, which is extraordinary. Almost everyone in India uses an Android phone. When you have that kind of position, it is very difficult to make a change that affects the mobile phone of every user in the country and yet somehow, they managed to push this phone number to everybody.”
"UIDAI should make people aware of how Aadhaar can be misused instead of transferring the blame on Google and pretending not to have any knowledge of the fact. The number of things they (UIDAI) always say is that their data is safe, their biometrics are secure. The idea is not that you can go on the internet and access anyone’s Aadhaar information directly, but that it is being leaked all over the place. There is an unrelenting train of scandals about Aadhaar, and they should respond to this in a reasonable way. They should be addressing the criticism and reforming the system instead of saying any criticism of us is illegitimate, it is scare-mongering,” he added.
The global whistleblower, who heads FreedomofPress, also talked about the importance of having free press in a democracy. He said, Rachana Khaira, the journalist from The Tribune, who was able to buy access to Aadhaar system and thus to personal details for just Rs500, deserves an award and not police complaints.
There are several people, especially youngsters, who freely share every bit and piece of information with others, without understanding their right to privacy or its implications. One of the reasons could be the statements from the government to not to worry about privacy, data security and rights. "Where did that argument originate from? The answer is from Nazi Germany. But in a free society this should be the opposite. You do not need to explain why you have a right. You do not need to explain why your personal data is valuable or why you need your privacy," Snowden said.
The Delhi High Court, on Tuesday, asked the Centre and the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) to file a response on the plea seeking exemplary damages for the losses caused due to leakage of Aadhaar data.
A bench of Justice S Ravindra Bhat and Justice AK Chawla asked the Centre and UIDAI to file response within six weeks and listed the matter for further hearing on 19th November.
The Court was hearing a plea filed by Shamnad Basheer through advocate Siddharth Aggarwal alleging that the dissemination of personal information of Aadhaar-holders made it clear that government is responsible for any breach of right to privacy.
The petitioner has said his constitutional rights have been breached due to the negligence of UIDAI.
Citing top court's judgement, the petitioner said that when the State violates the constitutional rights of a citizen, courts may award compensation.
He also said that his petition is very different from the other proceedings in the Supreme Court as he is seeking claim to damages due to breach of data.
Mr Basheer has also requested the Court to appoint an independent committee comprising multiple experts to investigate the scope, extent of breaches and the magnitude of harm caused due to data leak.
He has also sought direction to release information on the number of data breaches which have taken place since the inception of the Aadhaar scheme and the steps taken by the government towards remedying and rectifying their security practices after the breaches.
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After High Courts at Delhi and Madras, the Gujarat High Court have also ruled that quoting Aadhaar number is not mandatory for filing income tax returns (ITR).
A Division Bench of Gujarat HC also directed the tax department to accept ITR of a lawyer, who had filed the petition. The Bench also noted that the Aadhaar matter is pending before the Supreme Court.
In his plea, Khemchand Rajaram Koshti, the lawyer submitted that quoting Aadhaar number has been made mandatory by the tax department. However, he said since he neither have Aadhaar number nor had he applied for one, he was facing difficulties while filing his tax returns.
Last month, the Delhi High Court, while giving relief to two professionals, Shreya Sen and Jayshree Satpute, from quoting Aadhaar number for filing their ITR, directed the I-T Department to provide an additional button on its tax-filing portal to allow filing of tax returns without Aadhaar number. However, this has not yet implemented by the tax authorities.
Separately, the Madras High Court also allowed nine petitioners to file their ITRs without quoting their Aadhaar or enrolment numbers. The Division Bench of Justices MM Sundresh and Anand Venkatesh opined that an order allowing the filing of manual returns would not be prejudicial to the I-T authorities. The Court observed that if the Supreme Court decides to uphold the Constitutionality of Aadhaar, then the petitioners would have to file their ITR again by quoting Aadhaar.
Even as the Aadhaar matter is pending before the five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, various departments of the government are issuing circulars to make Aadhaar mandatory. As per Section 139AA of the Income Tax Act, assessees are required to quote their Aadhaar Card number or the Aadhaar enrolment number when filing ITRs.