India’s Supreme Court has upheld the validity of the controversial biometric security identity system Aadhaar, but still put a stop to the government’s move to make it mandatory.
Aadhaar has provided biometric identity verification for more than a billion people, but critics have warned that it could lead to a surveillance state, as well as enable companies to profile clients.
“This is a fabulous judgment,” said lawyer Kapil Sibal, a member of the opposition Congress party, according to Reuters. “It takes care of citizens’ rights and it ensures we don’t have a surveillance state in place, it ensures that our privacy is not intruded into, and at the same time, it protects the rights of the marginalized.”
A majority ruling by a panel of five judges approved the use of Aadhaar for welfare schemes because it works to stop theft and leakage in India’s $23.6-billion-a-year food welfare program.
“What we are emphasizing is that the remedy is to plug the loopholes rather than ax a project aimed for the welfare of large section of the society,” said Justice A.K. Sikri, adding that beneficiaries would be harmed if the technology was shelved.
And in a four-to-one ruling, the judges admitted that Aadhaar had benefits, but it put the brakes on a government effort to make it mandatory for everything from opening a new bank account to getting into school.
“The reason why we challenged (it) was because it went beyond the public distribution system, beyond protecting the marginalized, and tried to create a surveillance state,” Sibal said.
In addition, the panel noted that Aadhaar law must be able to provide compensation for anyone who suffers data or identity theft due to lapses on the part of UIDAI, or Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages the Aadhaar program.
“I feel really very happy that the Supreme Court has upheld the validity and basic principle that Aadhaar is safe, Aadhaar does not violate privacy and the act is constitutionally valid,” said R.S. Sharma, UIDAI’s former chief and current head of the country’s telecom regulator.