On paper, police departments do not have access to the Aadhaar database. Section 29 of the Aadhaar Act does not permit Aadhaar biometric details to be shared with anyone or to be used for any purpose other than to generate Aadhaar numbers and for authentication. In June, the Unique Identification Authority of India rejected the proposal of National Crime Records Bureau director Ish Kumar seeking limited access to the Aadhaar database to help identify first-time criminal offenders and unidentified dead bodies even as reports.

The authority – which is entrusted with developing and maintaining the database of the 12-digit unique identity numbers of over a billion Indians – also denied that it had shared Aadhaar details with any agency.

Despite this, police departments around the country are building their own Aadhaar-based databases.

In January, the Telangana Police launched a geo-tag project for individuals identified as repeat offenders in the police records. This involved linking the profiles of these individuals with their Aadhaar details, both demographic and biometric. The police in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are doing the same thing. The project is almost complete in one district in Madhya Pradesh while work is in progress in Rajasthan, senior police officials from the states said.

The National Crime Records Bureau chief’s suggestion had drawn protests from activists and cyber security experts, who said it would endanger privacy and data protection. Moreover, forensic experts said it was not a feasible idea to use biometrics to identify dead bodies. The actions of the state police forces have raised many of the same concerns.

Are the police departments violating the Aadhaar authority’s official policy?

Technically, no. This is because they are not accessing the Aadhaar database of the Unique Identification Authority of India but creating their own, relatively smaller databases of individuals who either have criminal records or have been included in black lists maintained by the police departments in these states.

Meanwhile, reports have now surfaced that the Union Ministry of Home Affairs is working on a proposal to scale up fingerprint collection across the country and link it to its ambitious Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System, which visibly adds legitimacy to the process.

Door-to-door data drive

In Telangana, police officials went door to door across the state to collect the Aadhaar details of listed offenders. They asked them to produce their Aadhaar cards, took photographs of these and recorded the fingerprints of the individuals on their mobile phones with the help of new technology procured in June 2017. The survey reportedly profiled 2.18 lakh individuals.

When the Madhya Pradesh Police launched their project in October 2017, they followed the same method. Pankaj Pandey, the senior crime branch official in charge of the project, said that in Gwalior district, the police have created an Aadhaar-linked database of around 3,000 individuals. These individuals are marked as repeat offenders in the black lists of beat constables.

“Our next step would be to look out for companies who can provide us with software to integrate the process and connect all districts, other than linking the database with the CCTNS [Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System],” said Pandey.

The Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System is a Central government project to create a comprehensive and integrated nationwide network for investigating crimes and detecting criminals. Approved in 2009 by the Congress-led government in power at the time, this network – which can be accessed partially by the public – holds a wide range of data such as first information reports and chargesheets. As of May 31 this year, it covered more than 90% of the police stations across the country, said a senior official of the National Crime Records Bureau. The bureau, which comes under the Union Home Ministry, is entrusted with the development, maintenance and upgradation of the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network System.

In Gwalior, Superintendent of Police Navneet Bhasin said the project to create an Aadhaar-like database “can solve two problems: first, nabbing offenders using multiple identities to mislead police; second, swiftly tracking down offenders of one district who commit crime in another and dodge the police because of lack of scientific tools which could nail them down instantly”.

In Rajasthan, police officials said the state crime records bureau had asked the Unique Identification Authority of India to give them access to the Aadhaar database in 2016, but their proposal was declined. As a consequence, they decided to go ahead on their own and collect the biometric details of repeat offenders or known criminals recorded in the police books. They, too, went doot to door to collect this data.

The Rajasthan Police have, however, put the project on hold temporarily after the rejection of the National Crime Records Bureau chief’s proposal. They are now looking into the legalities of proceeding with such a project, even though it does not technically involve seeking data from the Aadhaar authority or violating the Aadhaar Act, said a senior police officer who did not want to be identified.

What is the fingerprint bureau for?

The projects in the three states have raised questions about the utility of the fingerprint bureaus they already maintain. Whenever a person is arrested, their fingerprints are recorded and archived in these bureaus. No person is considered a repeat offender unless they have been arrested at least once before. This means that the fingerprint records of listed offenders whose details are being collected in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan should already exist in the records of the fingerprint bureaus of those states.

When Scroll.in asked some police officials in these states whether they were collecting data to make up for inefficiencies in the existing system, they said that the data collected under such schemes will be more complete – a collation of biometrics with demographic data, their digitisation and further integration with the CCTNS. The project in Telangana, however, has gone one step ahead by digitally marking addresses of individuals identified by the police as criminals.

While these state police departments seem to have taken a cue from National Crime Records Bureau director Ish Kumar, his proposal specifically mentioned first-time offenders. Seeking limited access to the Aadhaar database, Kumar said 80%-85% of criminal cases in the country involve first-time offenders, whose data is not available with the police.

However, he also spoke of the need to modernise the fingerprint bureaus, pointing out that fingerprint experts visit only around 55,000 crime scenes in a year – just around 1% of total cases registered in the country. The fingerprint bureaus of many states are also hobbled by inadequate staff and lack of laboratories, he added.