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The Supreme Court has red-flagged the threat of probable misuse of citizens’ information by entities which were getting Aadhaar data authenticated by UIDAI. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
The Supreme Court has red-flagged the threat of probable misuse of citizens’ information by entities which were getting Aadhaar data authenticated by UIDAI. Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Aadhaar: Supreme Court cites Cambridge Analytica case to highlight data privacy issues

UIDAI simply does not have the learning algorithms of Facebook, Google to analyse details of Aadhaar users, says lawyer appearing for UIDAI

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday red-flagged the threat of probable misuse of citizens’ information by entities which were getting Aadhaar data authenticated by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI).

While hearing a clutch of petitions against Aadhaar and its enabling law, a five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra on Tuesday referred to the Cambridge Analytica controversy and said concerns on data privacy are not “imaginary apprehensions".

In the absence of a robust data protection law, the issue of misuse of information becomes relevant, said the Supreme Court bench. “The real apprehension is that elections are swayed using data analytics. These problems are symptomatic of the world we live in," said the bench, also comprising justices A.K. Sikri, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Ashok Bhushan.

“Please do not bring Cambridge Analytica into this. The UIDAI simply does not have the learning algorithms like Facebook, Google to analyse details of users," said senior advocate Rakesh Dwivedi, who was appearing for UIDAI and the Gujarat government. Besides, Aadhaar Act, 2016, does not authorize any kind of data analysis, Dwivedi said, adding that the UIDAI has “simple matching algorithms" which give answers like “yes" or “no" after it receives a request for Aadhaar authentication from a requesting entity.

The bench, which posed several searching questions, asked the lawyer why the authorities were allowing private entities to use the Aadhaar platform for various purposes and referred to the legal provision to this effect. “Why are words ‘body corporate or any person’ used in section 57 of the Act. It breaks the nexus of the Act with the Consolidated Fund of India.... What is the point of involving private parties in the Aadhaar infrastructure," the bench asked.

Dwivedi responded by saying that “it does not allow any ‘chaiwala’ or a ‘panwala’ to become a requesting entity under the act. It is a limited exercise. The UIDAI will not approve anyone to become an requesting entity unless it is satisfied that the particular entity needs to use facility of authentication."

Dwivedi also referred to private companies like Reliance Group venturing into the defence sector and said at some point in time, the court will have to decide the aspect where private firms were dealing with public functions of the state.

Dwivedi also dealt with the persistent allegation that the people were being given a number identity as was done by dictator Adolf Hitler in Germany. “Hitler counted citizens to identify Jews, Christians, etc. Here, we do not seek details like caste, creed and religion from the citizens," he said, adding that the history of numbers began in India and “numbers are beautiful and fascinating".

Dwivedi also urged the Supreme Court bench not to give in to the “hyper phobia" against Aadhaar, as created by the petitioners opposed to the “inclusive scheme" of the government based on a law and the proper infrastructure.

“Lobbies favouring smart cards do not want this scheme to succeed as they are opposed to Aadhaar," the senior lawyer said, adding there have been efforts from many quarters to ensure that this scheme, which is more secure and works offline, does not work.

The Supreme Court bench then referred to the provisions of the Aadhaar Act and said the misuse of information at the end of UIDAI may not happen, but there could be possibility of misuse or commercial abuse of information by private entities involved in Aadhaar authentication.

To this, Dwivedi said the Aadhaar Act provided enough data protection to citizens and contained provisions to punish the offenders for any breach and moreover, the core biometric data cannot be shared by UIDAI. “No data protection law can provide 100% protection. The test should be ‘reasonable, fair and just’," he said, adding that “aggregation, analysis or transfer of data" is not allowed under the statute.

The lawyer also referred to uncertainties faced in life and said nothing was 100% secure as people died in air travel and accidents on the highways. He then referred to the fact that documents like passport, PNR and boarding passes of airlines contain numbers only and it does not mean that identity of an individual is lost. He said biometric details do not contain genetic data and they are not intrusive and they are used in instant digital authentication of Aadhaar holder.

“Aadhaar is not just an exercise to provide benefits and weed out fakes but also to bring the service providers face to face with the beneficiaries. That is the revolutionary aspect of Aadhaar," he said. “Aadhaar is not the panacea for all evils but the problems that were occurring on account of fake identity documents will be solved."

The Supreme Court bench also took note of the plea that Aadhaar cannot be struck down solely on the ground that it is “probabilistic". However, it said, “If probability leads to deprivation of fundamental rights, then there should be safeguards in place to ensure that this deprivation does not happen. There should be an administrative machinery in place to ensure no genuine beneficiary is deprived."

The advancing of arguments remained inconclusive and would resume on Wednesday.

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