Legal researcher Usha Ramanathan will this week receive the 2018 Human Rights Heroes Award, given by digital rights organisation Access Now, for her work on highlighting problems with India’s Aadhaar programme. Ramanathan has written and spoken extensively against the privacy, security and exclusionary risks of the biometric identity scheme.

Ramanathan and four other winners will receive the award from United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at Access Now’s annual event RightsCon, to be held in Tunis from June 11 to June 14. RightsCon is a human rights and technology conference.

Access Now has yet to announce the “Villains” for 2018 – another “award” it gives annually alongside the Heroes award to recognise those who “undermine” online freedom.

“Dr Ramanathan is one of the leading critics of Aadhaar who has, since 2009, tirelessly challenged the controversial Aadhaar digital identity program in India, objecting to both the privacy and the security risks,” Access Now said while announcing the award. “In September 2018, the Supreme Court in India ruled Aadhaar could not be mandatory for several purposes, and it could not be required by private companies. Afterward, Dr Ramanathan worked to explain the ramifications of the judgment and its disappointing limitations. She continues to speak out against the Aadhaar program.”

The statement further said: “While we give our award to Dr Ramanathan, we also want to recognise the entire community that has protested and litigated against Aadhaar.”

The other winners for 2018 are Bahraini digital security trainer Mohammed al-Maskati, Australian lawyer Lizzie O’Shea, Tanzanian digital security activist Zaituni Njovu and Venezuelan researcher Marianne Díaz Hernández.

Among the past winners was the nine-judge Constitution bench of India’s Supreme Court that recognised privacy as a fundamental right in 2017. The organisation had recognised Justice Rohinton Nariman separately “for specifically citing to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance in his opinion”.

Aadhaar judgement of the Supreme Court

In September 2018, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court had upheld most of the provisions of the Aadhaar Act by a 4:1 majority. The court had said mobile phones and bank accounts do no need to be linked with Aadhaar though it has to be linked with PAN cards for filing income tax returns.

The petitioners had raised concerns about privacy and questioned why the identity number was made mandatory for people to avail welfare schemes, file income tax returns, hold mobile numbers, and bank accounts. A major point of contention was whether Aadhaar violates the fundamental right to privacy, which the Supreme Court had upheld in 2017. The Indian government had backed the Aadhaar initiative, and extended it to cover several social security schemes.