Coming to the rescue of the Indian government’s beleaguered Aadhaar system are a group of private companies that have reportedly petitioned to the Supreme Court for the continuity of the citizen identity programme. The development comes ahead of the apex court’s pivotal hearing today about the validity of Aadhaar.
According to a report by ET, the Digital Lenders Association of India (DLAI), which is backed by tech startups like Lendingkart, Capital Float, bike-sharing platform Yulu Bikes, early-stage VC firm Khosla Labs, Handy Online Services and authentication services provider Transaction Analysts, filed the appeal in the Supreme Court last week.
As part of the petition, DLAI listed out some of the advantages that Aadhaar currently offers to digital companies, chief among them being eKYC which in turn allows real-time verification of customers.
Commenting on the development, Srikanth Nadhamuni, CEO of Khosla Labs stated, “It is not just the government which is using Aadhaar but private entities are also using (it) in a very big way. Lots of small companies, which are the backbone of the economy, are creating innovative solutions by using Aadhaar. Many companies felt that Aadhaar is a very positive and beneficial thing, and hence the group came together to voice support for its continued service which many companies have now come to depend upon.”
The petition is an “intervention application”, meaning that it has not been accepted by the Supreme Court so far. Furthermore, the country’s highest court is yet to issue any notice about the same, sources revealed.
Coalition For Aadhaar: An Overview
In a related development, a total of 50 companies – including fintech startups, lending platforms and verification agencies – have come together to form a group called “Coalition for Aadhaar”. Essentially, these companies are the ones that rely on Aadhaar eKYC and authentication services when onboarding new customers.
The group’s objective is to support and promote the cause of the Indian government’s unique identification (UID) project.
Elaborating further, Saranya Gopinath, a spokesperson for the Coalition said, “Coalition for Aadhaar is a set of entities outside of the governmental sector, (that is) private companies who strongly believe in the power of Aadhaar and in its ability to positively impact Indian society and economy.”
As per reports, during a recent meeting of the Indian Banks Association, a number of the country’s largest banks considered filing a similar petition, aimed at supporting Aadhaar.
Supreme Court To Commence Hearing On Aadhaar Today
Since the launch of Aadhaar in 2009-10, a number of petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court, challenging the citizen identity programme’s legal validity. The earliest petition on the subject was filed back in 2012.
Critics say that enforcing the use of Aadhaar, which assigns a unique 12-digit ID to every citizen, is an infringement of privacy. They have also stressed that the Aadhaar database was originally presented as a purely voluntary programme that offered to provide every Indian with an identity card.
However, the current government has been moving in the direction to make biometric-based Aadhaar mandatory for availing various benefits under various social welfare schemes.
The 12-digit identity number is linked to a citizen’s biometric details and has become mandatory for availing government services, such as filing Income Tax Returns, booking tickets on the IRCTC, opening a bank account and more.
Most recently, in October 2017, feminist scholar and activist Kalyani Menon Sen filed a petition challenging the constitutional validity of the decision of RBI to make linkage of bank accounts with Aadhaar mandatory on grounds of violation of the right to privacy.
Additionally, Sen’s petition also challenged the validity of March 23, 2017, circular issued by the department of telecommunication making it mandatory for citizens to link their mobile phones with Aadhaar. She stated that both decisions violated an individual’s right to privacy and, hence, were unconstitutional.
Prior to that, in August 2017, a nine-member bench of the Supreme Court gave a unanimous verdict that Right to Privacy is a fundamental right, giving a huge setback to the government’s Aadhaar policy. Post this judgment, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court was entrusted with the task of testing the validity of Aadhaar from the aspect of privacy as a Fundamental Right.
Speaking about today’s hearing, the five-judge bench, comprising Justices AK Sikri, AM Kanwilkar, DY Chandrachud, Ashok Bhushan and Chief Justice Dipak Misra, said, “We are of the considered view that the resolution of the issues raised before the Court should proceed at the earliest. This will ensure clarity for citizens on the one hand and for the Union and the state governments and the instrumentalities on the other hand.”
Some Of The Recent Controversies That Rocked The Aadhaar Boat
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the agency that governs Aadhaar, has repeatedly said that its data is secure. However, the government’s ability to keep this data secure or maybe even misuse it has become a worrisome question after the recent breaches and data leaks.
Recently, in the first week of January, reports surfaced that Aadhaar numbers, along with the linked details, were being sold for as little as $7.8 (INR 500). According to the original report by The Tribune, which unearthed the racket that is believed to have started nearly six months ago, administrator login IDs and passwords needed to gain access to the UIDAI portal could be acquired for only around $7.8 (INR 500).
The report further alleged that the system had nearly 100K illegal users. Authorities, however, have denied any infiltration of the Aadhaar system. The UIDAI, however, has continued to deny any breach of the Aadhaar database.
Before that, in November 2017, more than 200 central and state government websites had accidentally made private Aadhaar details such as names and addresses public. The UIDAI had later confirmed the breach.
In August of the same year, Qarth Technologies co-founder and Ola employee Abhinav Srivastava was arrested by Bengaluru’s Central Crime Branch on charges of data theft. According to the complaint, Srivastava illegally accessed UIDAI data through an “Aadhaar e-KYC verification” mobile app that he developed himself. Qarth workers were accused of developing an app and accessing details on the official website without authentication.
Around the same time, WikiLeaks published a report claiming that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in its cyber spying efforts had compromised Aadhaar data. The report alleged that the CIA was using tools devised by US-based technology provider Cross Match Technologies for cyber spying.
In May, security researchers discovered that the Aadhaar information of as many as 135 Mn people had been leaked online. Earlier in April 2017, the Aadhaar details of 1.4 Mn registered users were made public on the Jharkhand Directorate of Social Security. These details included sensitive information such as names, addresses, bank account details, among other thing.
To bolster Aadhaar’s security, the UIDAI recently launched a two-layered safety net feature to avoid data breaches. This consists of a 16 digit Virtual ID and limited know-your-customer (KYC) for Aadhaar number holders. Reportedly, the changes will come into effect from March 2018 and all agencies will have to adapt to the new authentication system by June 2018.
Early this week, it was also reported that UIDAI introduced another measure – face recognition, which is expected to come into effect from July 1, 2018.
While the debates over the legal validity of Aadhaar will likely continue for some time, the Supreme Court’s hearing today would help shed more light on some of the deep-rooted vulnerabilities of the system.