An operator helps an elderly woman scan her fingerprints as she enrolls for Aadhar, India's unique identification project in Kolkata, India, May 16, 2012.
An operator helps an elderly woman scan her fingerprints as she enrolls for Aadhar, India's unique identification project in Kolkata, India, May 16, 2012.

NEW DELHI - India’s Supreme Court has upheld the country’s ambitious, but controversial, biometric identity project saying it is benefiting the poor, but it also limited the government’s scope for using the program.

Critics had challenged the world’s largest collection of biometrics flagging concerns that ranged from violation of privacy, data theft, state surveillance to the exclusion of some poor people from state benefits.

The top court ruled Wednesday that the “Aadhaar” plan, under which data such as iris scans and fingerprints of over a 1.2 billion citizens have been collected, is constitutionally valid and empowers marginalized people.

“Aadhaar gives dignity to the marginalized.  Dignity to the marginalized outweighs privacy," said the ruling.  “One cannot throw out the baby with the bath water.”

However, the five-judge bench said the 12-digit identification number cannot be made compulsory for services such as opening bank accounts, getting mobile connections or school and college admissions which the government had sought to do.

Opposition Congress Party leader Kapil Sibal said that the judgment ensured that “we don’t have a surveillance state” in place, and people’s privacy is not intruded into.

The biometric project was launched a decade ago to eliminate rampant fraud by middlemen and ensure that government benefits such as food and fuel subsidies reach marginalized people who often have no identity proofs such as driving licenses or bank accounts.

It was seen as a huge step ahead for poor and illiterate people, but even here controversy has dogged “Aadhaar.” Many activists documented cases of people who were denied benefits as they ran into challenges of verification of their digital cards. The problems were varied: internet connections in rural areas were unreliable or laborers with calloused hands could not have their faded fingerprints scanned properly.

The Supreme Court has said that such challenges meant the plan had to be improved, not axed.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitely welcomed the judgment saying that “technology as a tool of governance is a concept nobody can deny.  In no field can we afford to be a tech laggard.” He said the government was saving billions of dollars every year due to the digitization.

But the controversy that has been raging over “Aadhaar” is unlikely to die down even after the Supreme Court ruling, specially from those who have expressed fears about hackers and others being able to gain access to India’s gigantic database on millions of its citizens.  Earlier this year, a journalist of the Tribune newspaper in North India said she had gained access to the Aadhaar database after paying an agent $7. The government strongly denied reports of a security lapse and says the database is completely foolproof.

But technology expert, Pratik Sinha of Alt News says security concerns have not been adequately addressed.  “The government has been extremely hostile to anybody who raises security issues,” said Sinha.

Critics are also underlining that one dissenting judge on the five-judge bench, D.V. Chandrachud, said the Aadhaar plan violated the right to privacy, as it could lead to profiling of individuals and voters.

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