While privacy advocates in the U.S. are fighting for net neutrality and Australian telco companies are following the new law requiring to retain metadata, India takes an entirely different direction. Privacy is now a fundamental right in India, as stated in the ruling of the Supreme Court announced back in August.
The landmark verdict delivered by the nine-judge bench describes the right to privacy as “an intrinsic part of Article 21 that protects life and liberty”. It can be called a historic overturn – two previous rulings haven’t addressed privacy as guaranteed by the constitution, and the government has been taking a rather unsupportive stance regarding the issue of privacy.
The question of privacy in India is closely tied with the country’s biometric identification system Aadhaar – the world’s largest program of this kind.
Since the Aadhaar system launch in 2009, the Indian government has collected the biometrics of over 1 billion people and issued randomly generated unique identity numbers based on this data. As for now, nearly 90% of residents of India participate in the program.
The collected biometrics include fingerprints and iris scans, which, together with demographic data, banking accounts, and information about welfare benefits and taxes, make up a vast amount of sensitive data stored in data centers. Even though the data is claimed to be protected with encryption, the scale and value of it might attract cyber criminals or put the sensitive information at risk of being leaked and misused.
Indians feel vulnerable, and for a reason. Some Aadhaar data leaks and unauthorized uses have already come to light, including publicly published information of students, pensioners and other recipients of welfare benefits.
Initially, the Aadhaar scheme came about as a voluntary form of prevention against benefit fraud. However, being registered in Aadhaar is becoming nearly compulsory, leaving no other choice for Indians but to trust and submit their sensitive data to the database when applying for certain services.
With no surprise, citizens are not happy about it. Critics claim that the biometric identification system has enough information to form detailed profiles, including person’s consumption habits, financial situation, property owned and other sensitive information. The controversial Aadhaar scheme has triggered a concern of India becoming a mass surveillance state.
Despite the fact that the decision isn’t directly tied to Aadhaar, making privacy a fundamental right is expected to provide the ID system critics with a supportive base for validity of their arguments. In the long run, it will potentially have a positive impact on future initiatives regarding privacy and protection of citizens’ personal data.
Tech companies that have built their business models around collecting and aggregating user data or even selling it to other parties may consider the new ruling as a push for managing user data more responsibly. Otherwise, they may end up in legal battles with customers who are unhappy about how their personal data is being treated.
In the digital age, when people put more and more information online, it is important for the authorities to have a clear stance on privacy. With this brave step, India is a go-to example for other nations.