Right to privacy fundamental but not absolute: Supreme Court of India

India's Aadhaar mandatory biometric ID program will be impacted by the Supreme Court's ruling that privacy is a fundamental right, though the court doesn't consider it absolute.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

India's Supreme Court has declared the right to individual privacy "intrinsic" and fundamental to dignified human existence under the country's constitution, but does not, however, consider it absolute.

"The right to privacy is implicit in the right to life and liberty guaranteed to the citizens of this country by Article 21. It is a 'right to be let alone'," the Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday.

While the court is yet to specify what privacy looks like, it said citizens have the right to safeguard the privacy of their home, family life, marriage, procreation, sexual orientation, and education, among other matters.

"None can publish anything concerning the above matters without his consent -- whether truthful or otherwise and whether laudatory or critical. If he does so, he would be violating the right to privacy of the person concerned and would be liable in an action for damages," the Supreme Court stated in its judgement.

"Position may, however, be different, if a person voluntarily thrusts himself into controversy or voluntarily invites or raises a controversy."

India has previously tried to justify privacy violations by contending that it is necessary for protecting national security.

The Supreme Court's 547-page judgment [PDF] asserts that personal liberty is subject to restrictions, which will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

There needs to be a "careful and sensitive balance between individual interests and legitimate concerns of the state" such as "preventing and investigating crime, encouraging innovation and the spread of knowledge, and preventing the dissipation of social welfare benefits", according to the court.

The ruling, delivered by a nine-member bench, is based on numerous petitions challenging the mandatory biometric ID card program, known as Aadhaar, which assigns a unique 12-digit ID to every citizen.

The program, introduced by the former United Progressive Alliance government, means banks and government agencies can instantly verify people's identities. The current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government considers it necessary for Indian citizens to access subsidies, operate bank accounts, and file taxes.

The Aadhaar program has become a key component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's push to make India a cashless society. The NDA government has been ramping up enrollment as part of its "Digital India" initiative, making registration mandatory for people seeking access to welfare benefits.

Global companies have subsequently embraced Aadhaar; Samsung offers devices fitted with Aadhaar-compliant iris scanners, while Microsoft paired its professional social network LinkedIn with India's ID system to connect people with jobs and training. Microsoft also integrated biometrics into its video chat service Skype, to enable Skype users to verify the identity of unknown callers in a variety of situations where ID verification is required, including job interviews and property sales.

For critics such as 91-year-old former High Court judge KS Puttaswamy and activists Bezwada Wilson, Aruna Roy, and Nikhil Dey, the introduction of the Aadhaar program was not accompanied by meaningful privacy protections. This is unhelped by reported leaks of people's biometric data.

The NDA government issued a statement following the judgement saying that it will enforce "a data protection law for which a committee headed by Justice BN Srikrishna, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, has already been appointed."

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