Renewed push in India for controversial move to link voter cards with biometric details

A photo taken on Feb 8, 2020, shows voters queueing outside a polling booth during the state assembly elections, in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - With an electorate of around 900 million, the world's largest democracy is inching closer to an ambitious move to link voter cards with individual biometric details from the national Aadhaar database which assigns a 12-digit unique identity number to residents in India based on their biometric and demographic detail.

While aimed at purging duplicate as well as bogus voters, the move has generated concern about data privacy and increasing profiling of citizens.

The Ministry of Law and Justice had responded "positively" to a request from the Election Commission of India (ECI) seeking legal powers to resume linking voter cards with Aadhaar numbers provided adequate safeguards are in place to prevent "theft, interception and hijacking" of data, The Indian Express newspaper reported on January 24.

The ECI began linking voter and Aadhaar cards in 2015 - more than 300 million cards were linked - when it had to stop the process after the Supreme Court in August that year restricted the use of Aadhar to availing of subsidised cooking gas, kerosene and food rations from the government.

In an order in September 2018, the court, while describing Aadhaar as constitutionally valid, placed strict limits on its use in the interest of protecting privacy. Verifying voter cards was not among the uses authorised by the court.

The government is now working on legal amendments for the necessary sanction to collect and use Aadhaar data for "cleaning" voters' list. The ECI has, however, maintained that a person will not be denied enrolment or shall be struck off the voter list in case he or she is unable to furnish Aadhaar details.

More than 1.2 billion individuals have enrolled themselves onto the Aadhaar database and several Indian political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party, have expressed support for the move. While the ECI declined to discuss this matter with The Straits Times because it still remains before the courts, Dr S Y Quraishi, a former chief election commissioner, supported linking voter cards with Aadhaar details.

"It has a limited purpose of finding duplicate voters, which has been a perpetual problem," he said. Aadhaar can help identify duplicate voters who could be registered in more than one district or state and may not be identified by other "de-duplication software", he added.

Dr Quraishi told The Straits Times that only details mentioned in the electoral roll, such as a person's name and address, are linked to the Aadhaar database. "These are already available in the public domain and shared with political parties... but the voting data such as who you vote for is not linked with anything. It is totally secret data that has no link or connection with any other software," he said.

Accessing this data requires one to open individual electronic voting machines that can be done only after securing an order from the court. "This doesn't mean that some day some problem may not surface... we cannot rule out anything. But prima facie, we feel this a safe and useful thing to do," Dr Quraishi added.

In August last year, retired Supreme Court judge B N Srikrishna, expressed concerns on linking Aadhaar with voter ID of citizens, by warning that "instead of having a Cambridge Analytica you'll have a Delhi Analytica, a Mumbai Analytica, a Calcutta Analytica. That is the danger."

He was speaking at an event organised by Mozilla and Internet Freedom Foundation. Justice Srikrishna had chaired the expert committee that drafted India's Personal Data Protection Bill, currently open to public feedback from stakeholders.

Retired major general Anil Verma, the head of Association of Democratic Reforms, said numerous reports of Aadhaar data being stolen and shared remain a concern and that its linkage with voter cards could further exacerbate worries about mapping data and profiling individuals, including potentially their voting preferences. "This has to be done, if at all, extremely carefully in a foolproof manner as these systems can be manipulated by the powers that be," he told The Straits Times.

In April last year, a police complaint was registered against IT Grids Pvt Ltd, a firm in Hyderabad that developed an app used by the local Telugu Desam Party to allegedly profile voters. The firm was accused of illegally storing and using Aadhaar data. A 2018 investigation by The Tribune newspaper also found it was possible to breach the Aadhaar database using an unauthorised "gateway" purchased online for less than S$ 10.

The Aadhaar database has even been found to be more inaccurate than the country's voter lists. A 2017-18 study by IDinsight, an organisation that uses data to combat poverty, found that the demographic error rate in India's voter database was lower than in Aadhaar - 5.7 per cent compared to 8.8 per cent in the latter.

Mr Verma also pointed to the fact that Aadhaar is a proof of identity and not citizenship, which is necessary for a person to get on the voting list. "The ECI too says that Aadhaar is not mandatory and other documents can be used. So, I am sure cleaning voter lists can be done by adopting other means too. Linking it with Aadhaar is not necessarily the best way," he added.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.