Directing the UIDAI not to share personal info of Aadhaar holder with any agency, the Supreme Court asked the Indian government to withdraw all orders making Aadhaar mandatory for availing services
In a path breaking decision, the Supreme Court on Monday asked the Indian government to withdraw all orders making Aadhaar or the unique identification (UID) number mandatory for residents. The apex court also asked Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), not to share any information, including biometrics that it has collected under the Aadhaar project through registrars, with any government agency without the permission of the person.
The Supreme Court pronounced this decision on a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by retired Karnataka High Court judge Justice KS Puttaswamy and Maj Gen (retd) SG Vombatkere, who retired as Additional Director General, Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, challenging the Constitutional validity of Aadhaar. In addition, the UIDAI had also challenge a decision of Goa Bench of Bombay High Court asking it to share its biometric data to solve a criminal case. Both the cases were heard before the three-judge Bench.
Shyam Divan, the counsel for Maj Gen (retd) Vombatkere, told the Court, that there is no statute to back the (Aadhaar) project and even if there were one, the statute would be violative of Fundamental Rights under Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution as the project enables surveillance of individuals and impinges upon right to human dignity. “The action under the impugned project of collecting personal biometric information without statutory backing is ultra vires even where an individual voluntarily agrees to part with biometric information," he said.
Adv Divan had contended that “…the (Aadhaar) project is also ultra vires because there is no statutory guidance (a) on who can collect biometric information; (b) on how the information is to be collected; (c) on how the biometric information is to be stored; (d) on how throughout the chain beginning with the acquisition of biometric data to its storage and usage, this data is to be protected; (e) on who can use the data; (f) on when the data can be used.”
According to Gopal Krishna of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties (CFCL), the SC order paves way for a verdict against the unscientific exercise of indiscriminate biometric data collection by Planning Commission's UIDAI, Home Ministry's Registrar General of India for Aadhaar number and National Population Register (NPR) and other government and private agencies.
The Goa case
Earlier, a Magistrates Court in Goa had asked UIDAI to share with the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), biometric data of all residents enrolled in Aadhaar scheme from the state, to help the agency solve the gang rape of a seven year old girl in Vasco.
UIDAI challenged the Court's decision before the Bombay HC. The Goa Bench, however directed the director general of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory to examine the technological capabilities of the UIDAI database. The HC also observed that UIDAI had agreed to test the competence of its database in comparing the chance fingerprints with its biometric record.
Aggrieved by the HC decision, UIDAI had approached the Supreme Court.
According to a report from the Indian Express, even as the UIDAI describes its biometric technology as one of the best in the world, it pointed out that there was a 0.057% occurrence of false identification. "Therefore, the implications of the False Positive Identification Rate of 0.057% when applied in the UIDAI database of 60 crore residents, will imply false matches of lakh of residents," the report says quoting the petition filed by UIDAI.
The biometric number is an identifier, which is used to "authenticate" and verify whether or not the person is what the person claims to be. A stunning aspect of how the UIDAI was sought to be implemented without the nod of parliament is the high level of ignorance about who can get an Aadhaar and implications of biometric based identification. On 31 January 2013, it came to light that the members of Union Cabinet were unaware whether it is a number or a card. Instead of facing the issue upfront, a Group of Ministers (GoM) was set up to resolve it but no one knows whether it has been resolved.
"Biometric data itself has scientifically been proven to be 'inherently fallible' especially because of constant decay of biological material in human body. Global experience demonstrates that the trust in junk science of biometrics is misplaced. The stolen biometric passport of a passenger in the missing Malaysian airliner has exposed its claims for good. We demand that the opposition parties should promise that new government after the Lok Sabha elections will destroy the illegal and illegitimate database of biometric features as has been done in UK and other countries," Gopal Krishna added.
Notably, the Strategy Overview document of the UIDAI said that "enrolment will not be mandated" but added, "This will not, however, preclude governments or registrars from mandating enrolment." It must be noted that Nandan Nilekani, former chief of UIDAI and now a Congress candidate from South Bengaluru constituency, headed dozens of committees whose recommendations made Aadhaar mandatory.
Tricked by the marketing blitzkrieg, some political parties were wary of taking a position that would appear anti-poor. They did not realise that what may be the real beneficiary of this biometric identification is UIDAI, which wants to meet its target of enrolling 60 crore Indians by 2014.
Earlier, in November 2013, Adv Divan, the counsel for Maj Gen (retd) Vombatkere, in the Supreme Court stated “The Aadhaar project was ultra vires as it did not have a statutory backing. Moreover, no statutory guidance exists on crucial questions such as—who can collect biometric information, how it is to be collected and stored, protection of collected data, who can use the data and when it must be used.”
He pointed out to a two-member bench of Justices BS Chauhan and SA Bobde, how UIDAI signed memorandum of understanding (MoU) with States which had no legal sanctity. He said, “State appoints registrars, who could even be a private person, who engaged private companies to collect biometric data. There is also the fear that the private party which collects the data then stores it in a personal laptop, which does not belong to the government.”
He also told the apex court about how UID changes the relationship between the state and the citizen. “Convicted criminals relinquish some privacy rights. They have their fingerprints taken for record. Here the government is treating all people as criminals,” Adv Divan had said.
Last year in September, the Supreme Court had ruled that Aadhaar or the UID number, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)'s ambitious scheme, is not mandatory to avail essential services from the government. While hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by retired Karnataka High Court judge Justice KS Puttaswamy and advocate Parvesh Khanna questioning the legal sanctity of Aadhaar, the apex court said, "The centre and state governments must not insist on Aadhaar from citizens before providing them essential services."
A Bench of Justices BS Chauhan and SA Bobde also directed central and the state governments not to issue the Aadhaar to illegal immigrants.
In its reply, the Centre had earlier claimed that for an Aadhaar, consent of an individual was indispensable and hence it was a voluntary project, with an objective to promote inclusion and benefits of the marginalised sections of the society that has no formal identity proof.
In July, replying to an un-starred question in the Lok Sabha on 8 May 2013, Rajiv Shukla, minister of state for parliamentary affairs and planning said, "Aadhaar card is not mandatory to avail subsidized facilities being offered by the Government like LPG cylinders, admission in private aided schools, opening a savings account etc."
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