SUPREME COURT ON AADHAAR AND PRIVACY SCUFFFLE

The Supreme Court’s 9-Judge Bench on Wednesday began hearing the matter on Aadhaar and its alleged invasion into privacy of people. While the decision bears considerable weightage owing to the strength of the Bench pronouncing the decision, the Court seems to be considering possibilities of putting State Powers and Citizen’s Rights on a reasonable balance.

Hon’ble Chief Justice Mr. K S Khehar had stated that “We have to first determine whether right to privacy is a fundamental right or not before going into the issue [on the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme],” while placing the matter before a 9-Judge Bench a few days ago. The Petitions arose from the several complaints and concerns raised by the public over the level of surveillance (though virtual) that the state would be empowered to exercise over the mass population of our people through Aadhaar (the UID or Unique Identification) since it is now being integrated with other documents like the PAN, Mobile Number, Social Welfare Schemes, etc. The UID database consists of all social and biometric data related to a person including fingerprints and iris scans; while it gives the Govt an effective mechanism to maintain a reliable ID on all people with the UID, the risks attached with such mass amount of personal data being accumulated in a single place is also alarming. The matter was challenged in various Courts of the Country by many people, and eventually the Supreme Court has now decided to settle the matter once and for all. The verdict of the Bench will put in place a binding precedent, as the strength of the Bench is high.

While the decision is yet to be pronounced on the matter, the Supreme Court did make some observations on the first day of hearing after listening to the averments put forth by the parties. “An exhaustive cataloguing by the court of what all constitutes privacy may limit the right itself”, Justice Chandrachud observed, implying that while the term “privacy” needs to be explained unambiguously before deciding what constitutes an ingression into the same, it is also dangerous to put narrow limits on the Right. While the State (represented by Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal) contends that the right to privacy is only a common-law right [not a Fundamental Right] and it was deliberately excluded (“consciously avoided”) by the framers of the Constitution from making it a part of the Fundamental Rights; the Petitioners contended that “a person should have the right to ‘informational self-determination”.

The Court, though Justice Chandrachud, observed that right to privacy cannot be linked to data protection. He instead observed that focus must be placed on statutory recognition of data protection instead of linking it with concerns of privacy. The final decision on the question is pivotal to the definition and limitation of privacy of people, and it will have far-reaching consequences further than just the current concern of Aadhaar.

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