Supreme Court declares Aadhaar safe but highlights need to protect privacy

The Supreme Court’s judgment on Aadhaar is significant for a number of reasons, but chiefly for upholding the safety aspect of it, which has been a concern among many. The government will see this as vindication of its stand for using Aadhaar as basic identity proof to roll out welfare schemes. But a full reading of the majority verdict read along with Justice DY Chandrachud’s dissenting judgment would make it evident that neither the government nor those who opposed it on the Aadhaar issue should claim victory in the case. Importantly, there is an acknowledgement that privacy concerns need to be addressed and for this there need to be safeguards – for instance it is not necessary to link Aadhaar with phone connections and bank accounts.

The court noted Aadhaar’s far-reaching benefits to empower vulnerable sections. In effect, 31-petitions challenging Aadhaar’s validity has been stuck down. The government has claimed that it saved over Rs 90,000 crore by weeding out fake beneficiaries. But the apex court has also limited Aadhaar’s usage to government welfare schemes. This is did while addressing key concerns on possible misuse of both commercial and private data accessed by private agencies like mobile companies and banks, some of which are notorious for trading data. Hence, striking down section 57 of the Aadhaar Act is significant because it bars private firms from using Aadhaar data. Consumers of banking services, payment banks and e-wallets can breathe a sigh of relief because it promises an end to intrusive calls seeking identity verification through Aadhaar.

Justice Chandrachud in his dissent judgment preferred to strike down Aadhaar as an instrument of identity proof itself. Four other judges including CJI Dipak Mishra begged to differ with him. Majority judges also concurred with the government that Aadhaar-related legislation was a Money Bill. This also explains court accepting mandatory linkage of Aadhaar to permanent account number (PAN) and filing of tax returns. This will also help the government at the centre to identify black money hoarders.

The big relief for ordinary people was to delink Aadhaar from school admissions. Henceforth, no private or public school can deny a child admission on the pretext of not possessing an Aadhaar number. Also, students appearing for CBSE or NEET examinations need not have an Aadhaar card. This is a big relief for students and their parents.

However, the big question that may continue to pester is what will happen to all the Aadhaar data with private agencies? Given that section 57 of the Aadhaar act has become null and void, removing Aadhaar number from the data bank of mobile companies and banks may have to be made seamless. But that may be a Herculean task for most banks and private agencies that have to date threatened to cease services. Delinking Aadhaar from data banks of private agencies also has the serious potential of leaking this vital data. The Supreme Court verdict also makes out a case for serious data security and privacy laws adoption by Parliament and state legislatures. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment, a national debate is warranted on what status should be accorded to Aadhaar and unique identification number that comes with it. Secondly, issues like money laundering, banking frauds and black money cannot be stemmed without a national register of citizens with clear identities. Thirdly, a national citizenship register is required to get a handle on terror funding. Fourthly, all stakeholders will have to seriously think about making the citizen database foolproof and housed within the country.