Aadhaar’s familiarity as a mark of identity is well known. But it has been shrouded in controversy since its inception in 2009 because of multiple concerns about privacy, technological issues, welfare exclusion, as well as security concerns.
Of late, there have been reports about incidents of leakage of Aadhaar numbers.
But how justified are the concerns about privacy and security? Should UIDAI be blamed? Let’s take a look at the big picture and consider the concerns expressed individually.
It was highlighted when cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s personal data was leaked. It triggered a debate and raised questions about possible vulnerabilities of the Aadhaar system.
To begin with, Aadhaar is not a secret number. It is just a few random digits assigned to you. As per the Aadhaar Act, “An Aadhaar number shall be a random number and bear no relation to the attributes or identity of the Aadhaar number holder.” 1
What is sensitive and personal is the biometric information collected by the UIDAI. It is this data that ensures uniqueness.
Referring to the leak of the Aadhaar details of M.S. Dhoni, UIDAI CEO Ajay Bhushan Pandey had told PTI: “We have blacklisted VLE (Village Level Entrepreneur) who enrolled M.S. Dhoni for leaking Aadhaar receipt which carried his personal information. At UIDAI, we are very strict on the privacy issue. We have ordered further inquiry on the matter and action will be taken against all those involved in the leak”.3
Security has been the most talked about and debated aspect of Aadhaar. Recent instances wherein data on beneficiaries of certain welfare schemes were leaked have raised questions in this regard.
Union Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad said in an interview to The Economic Times, “Security concerns pertaining to Aadhaar are misplaced and the system is robust and secure”. The UIDAI uses one of the world’s most advanced encryption technologies in transmission and storage of data. As a result, during the last seven years, there has been no report of a breach or leak of residents’ data with the UIDAI.
Section 29(4) of the Aadhaar Act prohibits the publication of Aadhaar numbers, except for purposes specified by regulations. The regulations reiterate that should these numbers be published, the same should be blacked out. But when looked at from the perspective of Right to Information, it ensures transparency in the functioning of public authorities and enables social audit of various programmes. Section 4 of the RTI Act mandates every public authority to publish information in its possession in digital form. Hence, it should be clear that the lists of beneficiaries of various programmes are being published by the concerned state governments in compliance of the RTI Act.
The UIDAI states in its press note2 that “There has been no incident of misuse of Aadhaar biometrics leading to identity theft and financial loss during the last five years when more than 400 crore Aadhaar authentication transactions have taken place”.
For further details about security policy of Aadhaar, click here
Autonomous Right over Body: Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s recent argument that citizens cannot claim absolute right over their bodies, and thus cannot refuse to provide digital samples of their body parts when the state calls upon it, further fuelled the debate on Aadhaar.
What needs to be understood is that the argument that people cannot refuse to give digital samples by claiming absolute rights over their bodies does hold true because it does not violate the privacy of an individual. People already leave a trail of biometric data in their daily life, for instance, by checking into an office or transacting on a mobile phone.
There is a legitimate demand that biometric data should be kept confidential but refusing to do so by claiming a right to privacy is logically untenable. People cannot opt out of it and become invisible.
The Way Forward
In a comparative analysis, the efficiency of the Aadhaar mechanism and the benefits of Aadhaar prevail over the concerns expressed and the criticism.
A few examples of how Aadhaar is changing the lives of common men and women of India:
Aadhaar is first of all a tool to ensure that state benefits reach the intended beneficiary without transmission losses. But Aadhaar is much more than that. Recently, its scope has been enlarged for maximum tax compliance. It is a necessary step if India is to weed out ghosts and duplicates from the system. There is no human rights issue involved here. Any concern on that ground is exaggerated.
We have two paths before us: Either we create the necessary instruments for the efficient delivery of benefits, services and governance or we acknowledge the collective will of tax evaders and facilitate a dysfunctional democracy.
That choice is ours.