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India's Aadhaar national biometric ID scheme at risk after Supreme Court rules privacy is a right

Facebook and Google also have reason to be worried

By Simon Sharwood, 25 Aug 2017

India's Supreme Court has ruled that the nation's constitution gives its citizens a right to privacy, a decision that clouds the future of the country's Aadhaar biometric identification scheme.

Aadhaar will see every Indian citizen identified by a 12-digit number after a process that sees their faces photographed, along with a record taken of their irises and fingerprints. The scheme also requires that ID number to be provided to third parties like financial institutions. India's already made use of Aadhaar compulsory for e-government services, part of the country's modernisation drive.

Privacy advocates worry that Aadhaar's ubiquity will mean India's government will know an awful lot about its citizens. The likelihood Aadhaar's records will be targeted by criminals also worries many, not least because the service has already leaked financial records. Various organisations and individuals have therefore challenged the scheme in India's courts.

As some those cases worked their way through the court, they foundered on the matter of whether Indians have a right to privacy. A related case therefore made its way into the Supreme Court, India's ultimate jurisdiction, and on Thursday it issued a 547-page judgement [PDF] in which the nine judges found that Section 21 of the nation's constitution does confer a right to privacy. The decision overturned rulings made in lower courts.

With that sorted, a raft of cases testing Aadhaar's validity can proceed.

The government doesn't seem to be worried, as IT minster Ravi Shankar Prasad quickly tweeted as follows:

Another issue the decision raises is whether data-slurping tech businesses will have to change their ways, as some of the judges call for India to create a comprehensive data protection regime covering government and private use of data. With the likes of Google and Facebook expending plenty of time and energy winning over Indian consumers, the judgement will therefore have effects well beyond Aadhaar alone. ®

The Register - Independent news and views for the tech community. Part of Situation Publishing