Aadhaar, literally meaning “base”, is now being used as the new age identity proof. It will be needed not only for accessing government benefits, but also for verification of identity in the banking services, digital communication system, education sectors and even in public and private employment sectors.
Aadhaar is basically an 11 digit proof of identity system that is meant to play a crucial role in availing government and non-government services. According to S.3(3) of the Aadhaar Act, 2016 (The Act), every resident (not a citizen, as this term has not been mentioned in the provision) is entitled to obtain Aadhaar number after submission of biometrics and other related data and proper verification of the same by the government agency.
The Act also mentions that the unique identification authority of India will take special measures to issue Aadhaar number to specific groups of individuals, including senior citizens, women, disabled persons etc. While the recent government decisions to mandatorily connect Aadhar with the banking system and telecommunication services has created a wide range of controversies, one must also be concerned about the security of ‘Aadhaar of information’, especially for the senior citizens and women. Aadhaar biometrics include image of iris, finger prints and photograph of the face.
When the concept of Aadhar was introduced way back in 2010-11, it was not mandatory. Consequently, senior citizens and women might not have taken much interest in the same. But later, the Aadhar verification number was made essential for availing some government-aided services, including cooking gas connection. This was one of the very first steps to include Aadhaar as an essential ‘card’ or identity proof for individuals.
This essentialisation of Aadhaar remained questionable because several stakeholders raised the issue of limited awareness about it. Moreover, there were already too many verification processes needed for availing government schemes and there were not many Aadhaar card holders. Mostly, the cooking gas services were being availed by stakeholders by way of linking Aadhaar of the head of the families.
This indeed questioned the basic understanding of the equal distribution of natural wealth through the social welfare system supported by the government. It was only with the demonetisation move in 2017 that Indian citizens, generally, became more concerned about mandatory nature of the Aadhaar card. Without the Card, banks would not extend their services equally to those who did not possess Aadhaar. It was at this juncture that individuals, irrespective of their gender and age, started registering for Aadhaar number and was also made aware of the privacy issues that was attached to this concept.
Aadhaar may give unwarranted access to personal financial information as well as private mobile and landline numbers. Privacy right defenders have argued that this is against the basic norms of ensuring privacy as the Aadhaar system itself may not be foolproof. Recent report on possibilities Aadhaar information leakage has made their claim stronger.
To check possible data leakages, the service providers, including the banking and telecom sector, are duty bound to ensure double verification system. The UIDIA itself is an ‘authority' to safeguard sensitive personal data like the biometrics. They have, time and again, released statements about their own strong mechanisms to prevent data leakage. However, this does not make the whole system free from concern.
Majority of the senior citizens in India are digitally illiterate and may have to depend on the younger generation to ‘authenticate’ the Aadhaar online. The question of ‘trust’ essentially arise here because the younger generation becomes the ‘information conveyer’ to the older generation. The third party inclusion may automatically breach the privacy at the beginning.
Similarly, while senior citizens may possess mobile phone numbers, the recent call for linking Aadhaar number with telecom service industry has caused another havoc. Consider the plight of pensioners and other beneficiaries who may be availing financial benefits and depend majorly on the SMS system for receiving message regarding crediting or debiting of amounts in their accounts: the fear of blocking of the phone numbers because of not linking of Aadhaar with the same may create several health hazards for the senior citizens.
The Indian government may not have an answer to such problems, particularly, at a time when the courts are being approached for ensuring senior citizen’s rights. However, this constant tussle between government’s responsibility towards ensuring holistic rights of senior citizens and the latter’s silent suffering due to the problematic nature of “Aadhaar of identity" should not go unnoticed.
It is essential to make workable policies related to identity proof, which must not only provide assurance of safety but also should ensure the privacy of more vulnerable citizens of India.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)