The Big Story: Phone home

On August 24, a nine-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous verdict declaring that every citizen had a fundamental right to privacy. The question of whether Indians had such a right emanated from a batch of petitions questioning the validity of Aadhaar, the 12-digit biometrically linked identification number that the government wants every citizen to have. After the privacy judgment, this question will now be tested before a five-judge bench in the coming months.

However, the fact that the very validity of Aadhaar is still under judicial scrutiny seems to have had little effect on telecom companies, many of which are pressing ahead to link their mobile phone numbers with Aadhaar. Many customers have noted that they are being sent frequent messages – sometimes up to three a day – asking them to complete this linkage as soon as possible as the Centre has fixed a deadline of February 6, 2018, to get this done. “Hi, as per government order your mobile number should be linked with Aadhaar,” reads a message from one of the telecom companies. “Kindly refer to 11th September newspapers.”

The companies are citing a March 6 Department of Telecom circular to push this process. The circular in turn refers to an order delivered by the Supreme Court on February 6 in a public interest litigation that sought a thorough customer verification process to ensure that mobile numbers are not misused for illegal activities, including terrorism.

However, the notification citing the Supreme Court directions seems to be a case of obfuscation on part of the Centre. As it turns out, the court order did not make such linking mandatory. A reading of the order will make it clear that the Supreme Court merely recorded the Aadhaar linkage proposed by the Union government and hoped it would fulfil its assurance of completing the linkage within a year of its undertaking before the bench.

But the Centre in subsequent orders has converted a mere observation of the Supreme Court in taking on record the submissions of the government into a judicial direction. In fact, nowhere during the proceedings did the court propose Aadhaar linking as the ideal way to combat fake mobile customers.

As this Livelaw article points out, it was curious that during the proceedings, neither the petitioner nor the attorney general informed the two-judge bench that a five-judge bench had already reiterated the court’s position that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory for any service till its validity is adjudicated upon. Six months later in August, the court delivered the verdict assuring citizens the right to privacy. This has completely changed the jurisprudence that existed in February. Pushing Aadhaar at this point could only be considered an act of not only undermining Supreme Court orders but also a fundamental right.

It would be difficult to blame the telecom companies for sending out such text messages asking customers to link Aadhaar with phone numbers. The companies act on directives issued by the telecom department and cannot be expected to engage in interpreting court directives. The onus is on the Centre toask the companies to not go ahead with the process till the Supreme Court finally decides on the validity of the unique identification number.

The Big Scroll

  • Sruthisagar Yamunan on what the privacy verdict means for Aadhaar. 

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