The Supreme Court on Tuesday observed that it cannot neglect the advantages of the Aadhaar scheme while deciding its constitutional validity, even as it agreed that profiling of citizens based on their data is a serious matter, The Times of India reported.
“Profiling is a very serious issue and we have to engage our mind on that aspect,” Justice DY Chandrachud said, according to the newspaper. “But equally important is that the government has been able to provide benefits to communities under the scheme. It allows doorstep delivery of services and benefits to people.”
A five-judge constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, on Tuesday was hearing a clutch of petitions that challenge the constitutional validity of the government’s biometric identification programme.
Senior advocate Shyam Divan, the lead counsel for the petitioners, said there was a genuine apprehension that Aadhaar data could be used to profile individuals, thus violating their right to privacy. Aadhaar was an “architecture of digital dictatorship” which could help the government to maintain constant surveillance on its citizens, he said, according to The Times of India.
Divan further said that surveillance enabled by the Aadhaar programme was the “envy of countries such as North Korea”. “This programme is not just the envy of North Korea, but also the World Bank,” the bench said.
The bench observed that linking the programme to mass surveillance was “stretching too much”. “If you have an iPhone in your pocket, then your movements could be easily tracked. Your whereabouts could be also known if you use an ATM card. We are all living in a highly networked world,” Justice Chandrachud said.
The bench, also comprising Justices AK Sikri, AM Khanwilkar, and Ashok Bhushan, said if the government was using Aadhaar to check whether the people who were receiving benefits are alive or not without profiling the citizens, then “can it not have a legitimate concern in ensuring that the identity of beneficiaries is maintained”, NDTV reported. “Aggregation for ensuring social welfare benefits. Why wouldn’t that pass the muster?” the bench asked.
Chandrachud said Aadhaar was also appreciated by various economists, the Hindustan Times reported. “The positive aspect of Aadhaar is that for the first time there is a citizen-centric delivery of services,” he said.
However, the court agreed that there is a need to examine the possibility of misuse of the details collected under Aadhaar. The bench said the government needs to explain how can private entities be allowed to use the data. “What is the scope for misuse in the future? That is important,” the bench added, according to Hindustan Times.
In a landmark ruling in August 2017, the Supreme Court had declared privacy a fundamental right protected under Article 21 of the Constitution. The bench was initially set up on December 13, but two days later, the Supreme Court agreed to the Centre’s submissions to extend the deadline to link Aadhaar with all government schemes and services to March 31. The interim order also extended the deadline to link Aadhaar with mobile numbers to the end of the financial year.