Citizens have right to privacy, rules India's apex court

An Indian visitor giving a thumb impression to withdraw money from his bank account with his Aadhaar or Unique Identification (UID) card in Hyderabad on Jan 18, 2017.
An Indian visitor giving a thumb impression to withdraw money from his bank account with his Aadhaar or Unique Identification (UID) card in Hyderabad on Jan 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Ruling deals blow to nationwide biometric plan; may impact data use by firms like Facebook, Uber

NEW DELHI • India's top court has ruled that citizens have a fundamental right to privacy, a potential setback to the government's plan to use its vast biometric identification programme in everything, from mobile connections to income-tax filings.

In a unanimous verdict, nine judges of the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that privacy was a part of the fundamental right to life and a liberty guaranteed under the country's Constitution. "Right to privacy is an intrinsic part of right to life," Chief Justice J.S. Khehar said while reading out the verdict.

The ruling by a rare nine-judge bench came after a referral from a smaller panel hearing a challenge to India's biometric identification programme Aadhaar, which has signed up more than one billion Indians.

It also will impact the workings of a host of global corporations in India, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, as well as technology companies like Apple and Uber, which deal with the data of individual users.

Aadhaar, which means "foundation" in Hindi, is a 12-digit number provided to citizens after collecting their biometric information - fingerprints and an iris scan - along with demographic details and a mobile phone number. It was originally designed to stop the pilfering by middlemen of government subsidies for the poor and to save money as the government doles out social security benefits.

The Aadhaar programme has gradually become a key component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's push to make India a cashless society. Mr Modi's government has attempted to make Aadhaar compulsory for a number of government services, ranging from school meals for students to paying taxes, raising concerns about privacy and data theft.

Privacy is not explicitly mentioned in the Indian Constitution, and the government has argued that the country's 1.25 billion people have no absolute right to it.

Some of the arguments against Aadhaar have focused on the government's decision to make enrolment compulsory to receive welfare benefits.

Another concern raised was that data could be used to track a person's movements and transactions. Petitioners cited several instances of numbers and personal details being leaked or sold online.

The legal validity of the mandatory use of the Aadhaar programme will now be scrutinised by a smaller bench in the light of yesterday's verdict.

Mr Rahul Matthan, a privacy lawyer and partner at law firm Trilegal, said: "Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to privacy is a fundamental right, the court can examine whether Aadhaar violates this fundamental right."

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline 'Citizens have right to privacy, rules India's apex court'. Print Edition | Subscribe