Centre for Internet & Society

In India, calls for strict privacy laws are growing after this week's passage of a measure that allows federal agencies access to biometric data of the nation's citizens, the world's largest such repository.

The article by Anjana Pasricha was published in Voice of America on March 18, 2016. Pranesh Prakash gave inputs.

The government says the use of biometrics will help cut rampant graft in the distribution of subsidies, but activists and opposition lawmakers warn it could usher in an era of increased state surveillance.

Raghubir Gaur, who works as an electrician in the capital, New Delhi, says he has never collected subsidized rations such as wheat and rice, because “somebody else has been taking the rations I should have gotten.” Now, with a national proof of identity, or "Aadhaar" card in his hands, Gaur says he is confident he will be able to access his designated subsidies.

The Aadhaar card is being used to give welfare benefits to the poor, who often cannot provide any proof identity, allowing corrupt officials to siphon entitlements.

The government says it has saved nearly $2 billion by preventing misuse of the subsidies in the last fiscal year alone.

Critics fear ‘police state’

Civil activists and research groups, however, have dubbed the Aadhaar program “surveillance technology” that constitutes a serious breach of privacy. They point to identity-verification systems in other countries, where cards or identification numbers are used for verification without creating a gigantic central database that documents every last transaction.

Indeed, the Aadhaar database also stores fingerprints and iris scans of every account holder, labeling each with a 12-digit identification number.

Concerns that this could lead to a massive invasion of privacy have been heightened because the new law allows the data to be used “in the interest of national security.”

“From verifying yourself to the ticket conductor on a train to someone who is delivering something at your house, all the way to opening a new bank account, all these transactions get logged against the centralized data base," says Pranesh Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore. "So this invades your life completely and thoroughly.”

Some lawyers and privacy advocates say this has made it even more important to support a strong privacy law to ensure the huge government database isn't misused.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has defended the biometrics legislation, saying the data will be accessed only in rare cases that require authorization by a senior official.

“You mark my words, you are midwifing a police state,” said lawmaker Asaduddin Owaisi, just one parliamentarian opposed passage of the legislation and found no comfort in Jaitley's assurances.

Fraud concerns

Despite objections, the bill was passed by legislators who argued that such a move is critical to ensuring subsidies reach intended beneficiaries in a country where millions are poor and illiterate.

Attempts to draft a right to privacy bill to protect individuals against misuse of data by government or private agencies date back to 2010, but have made little headway. The latest push started in 2014.

Citing a cyberattack targeting the U.S. government, in which a hacker gained access to the information of millions of people, research groups have also flagged security concerns around India’s ambitious Aadhaar program.

“If this database gets leaked, the entire identification system collapses because people will be able to authenticate themselves as anyone else. So identity fraud is a great concern,” said Prakash of the Center for Internet and Society.

Nearly one billion biometric identity cards have been issued in India in the last six years.