Aadhaar and data privacy: biometric identification and anxieties of recognition in India

By Pawan Singh Oct 01, 2019

  

The data privacy debate in India has evolved with respect to the government’s biometric identity programme, Aadhaar that enrols welfare-dependent, poor populations to grant them access to government benefits. While legal challenges to Aadhaar by civil society groups argued that the biometric identity infrastructure creates conditions of mass surveillance and violation of individual privacy, the Indian Supreme Court in 2018 ruled that the government was justified in restricting individual privacy for the collective good of providing welfare in a transparent and corruption-free manner. Given the disproportionate burden on these populations to prove their identities to the state, this paper draws on a close reading of legal and policy texts, and activist documentation to argue that there is a need to move beyond the narrative of mass surveillance as privacy violation. Data privacy interests of the welfare-dependent emerge in the moment of biometric authentication, which creates anxieties of recognition when their authentication attempts fail or are deliberately falsified. Often, to have better social mobility, they are compelled to be physically mobile in order to enrol or update their records under conditions of physical disability and meagre socioeconomic means. These anxieties illuminate their privacy interests through a compromise of dignity or dignified living, a formulation articulated in the 2018 Aadhaar verdict. The paper examines the UIDAI Strategy Overview, the 2018 Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutional validity of Aadhaar for welfare and video narratives of excluded beneficiaries documented by the Rethink Aadhaar campaign.

1. The privacy debate in India emerged around the implementation of Aadhaar, Indian government’s biometric identity programme, from 2012 onwards. Aadhaar enrolment was initially voluntary, however, it became mandatory not just for welfare provisions but also banking, taxation, mobile telephony and various other services. Various pro-privacy groups including activists, lawyers and economists contended that Aadhaar created a mass surveillance infrastructure, reducing the poor to mere numbers. In 2017, the Indian Supreme Court ruled privacy to be a fundamental right subject to certain limitations. In 2018, another bench of the same court ruled that mandatory Aadhaar was constitutionally valid for welfare but not necessary for non-welfare services except taxation.

2. The paper moves beyond the narrative of mass surveillance that determines privacy violation to demonstrate how privacy interests of the welfare beneficiaries emerge from the biometric authentication of their identities. The privacy interests of mandatorily enrolled beneficiaries emerge during a failed or falsified instance of biometric authentication that compromise the integrity of a beneficiary’s recognition for welfare purpose. The paper argues that repeated attempts at authentication lead to anxieties of recognition, which causes uncertainty over one’s legitimate claims on their entitlements. Denial of rations or pension undermines the dignity of deserving beneficiaries – also a privacy interest as observed by the Indian Supreme Court in its 2018 ruling. The paper draws upon media studies scholar Helen Nissenbaum’s theory of contextual integrity, which argues that instead of approaching privacy as control over information sharing and its regulation through notice and consent type measures, privacy should be understood through the expectations of the subject, types of information and constraints of transmission in context. The expectations of welfare beneficiaries from Aadhaar authentication are tied to their successful authentication upon which they receive rations.

3. The paper employs qualitative methods including close reading of legal texts, policy and activist documentation regarding Aadhaar. It examines the experience of older beneficiaries whose fingerprints were faded, instances of deliberate falsification by the ration dealer and other kinds of hardships faced by beneficiaries in trying to successfully receive regular rations. The paper also critiques Aadhaar’s promise of improved social mobility through socioeconomic empowerment by arguing that the requirement to present oneself physically at the enrolment and authentication centre presumes physical mobility. While most who live in villages are compelled to be physically mobile to travel to the enrolment/authentication centres, those who have a physical disability may have to depend on others for getting their rations. This dependence suggests a compromise of dignity, a legitimate privacy interest.

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