Secret Identities

Secret Identities

This newspaper reported on Monday that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had appointed a panel to create a blueprint for a new law guaranteeing a citizen’s right to privacy. The story cited sources that said this right to privacy would be made a fundamental right under the Constitution. Why is the government taking this step now?

The immediate motive is to ward off a growing wave of opposition to the Aadhaar, or unique identification (UID), project. Many NGOs and activists have voiced opposition to the UID project because they believe it compromises individual privacy and violates several rights. Detractors say that the project’s modus operandi of exhaustively gathering data about an individual into a biometrically indexed database leaves citizens open to risks.

One such risk is that the universality of the card will leave citizens without it marginalized, depriving them of access to goods and services. Other concerns include identity theft, the fear that authorities will use the UID database to discriminate and the “wasteful costs" involved in indexing over a billion people.

The greatest concern, however, is the vulnerability of the UID information database to snooping. This fear has plagued national identity schemes before.

Just this May, David Cameron’s regime announced that it was scrapping the previous government’s national identity card scheme. Part of Cameron’s campaign manifesto, the decision kills an eight-year-old project that had already issued cards to 13,000 UK citizens at GBP 30 each. (These early adopters will not get a refund and have been asked to keep the cards “as souvenirs".)

In the UK, too, activists, human rights lawyers and IT experts cited privacy concerns to scuttle the scheme.

It is in this climate that the government embarks on a privacy law that will hopefully help the UID project do better than its UK counterpart.

Detractors will not be satisfied. They won’t trust the UID. They won’t trust the new law that upholds the UID. And they won’t trust the government that upholds the new law. To really convince all stakeholders, the UPA government has to prove that it is serious about privacy, and that it will draft and enact this new law without ambiguity. And it must show how the law will be upheld within the specific context of the UID programme. Only then will this domestic trust deficit be curtailed.

Does the new privacy law allay UID fears? Tell us at