As many as 104 former civil servants on Wednesday issued a statement against linking voter identification card to the Aadhaar card, calling it a “dangerous move” that could be used for illegal profiling or targeting of citizens during elections.
On December 21, Rajya Sabha passed the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which proposes to allow electoral registration officers to seek Aadhaar numbers of people who want to register as voters to establish their identity.
“There is a distinct possibility that Voter IDs linked to Aadhaar cards and thence to mobile phones could be linked to social media,” the statement read. “This social media can be linked to algorithms that are in turn linked to user interests/views. Without a robust Data Protection law and accompanying regulatory mechanisms in place, voter profiling, selective exclusion and targeted campaigns are all possible.”
The former civil servants said such profiling could result in a controversy similar to the one in which British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica was involved.
The case pertains to the misuse of data of an estimated 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, which shut down in May 2018. Without authorisation, the firm harvested the personal data of 50 million Facebook users through a seemingly harmless personality quiz.
This information was then allegedly used to tailor messages to voters to influence the 2016 United States presidential elections that former President Donald Trump won.
The statement by the former civil servants on Wednesday also said that the requirement of Aadhaar verification for voters could undermine the independence and integrity of the Election Commission of India, which issues “accurate electoral rolls” and ensures “free and fair elections”.
The former civil servants also said that it was likely that non-citizens could be registered as voters if Aadhaar is used as the only proof.
The Aadhaar Card is issued based on identity, without proof of citizenship. But while issuing a voter identification card, a block-level officer visits the resident of the applicant to verify the details.
“It cannot be ruled out that, with the linkage of Aadhaar numbers to Voter IDs, and in the absence of physical verification by the election authorities, efforts may be made to manipulate electoral rolls by getting persons registered as voters in constituencies where they do not reside,” the statement read.
The signatories added that the attempt to clean databases of government programmes like the Public Distribution System by using the Aadhaar index had resulted in names of thousands of beneficiaries being arbitrarily deleted from systems. It had taken away the benefits of the schemes from many beneficiaries.
“It is unfortunate enough that the Government of India has, without any effective parliamentary oversight or discussion, brought in this crucial legislation that could have a major impact on electoral outcomes,” the statement read.
The civil servants said that a strong judicial intervention was required to address the matter.
Ever since the Election Laws (Amendment) Bill was introduced in Parliament, the Centre has been claiming that linking Aadhaar details with voter IDs will be voluntary.
The former civil servants, however, were not convinced with the Centre’s wording of the Bill. They said that citizens were “literally coerced to link their bank accounts with their Aadhaar numbers, despite the apparent voluntary nature of executive directions and the specific orders of the Supreme Court”.
In its September 2018 judgement, the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar scheme and upheld most of the provisions of the Act. However, the court said that phone numbers and bank accounts do not need to be linked with Aadhaar.
“In fact, many government departments and private bodies today routinely ask for Aadhaar numbers for provision of services, in clear violation of Supreme Court orders, which specified the use of Aadhaar-based identification for government welfare schemes funded from the Consolidated Fund of India,” the former civil servants said in the statement.