Representational Pic
Representational Pic

Aadhaar is the world’s largest biometric ID system issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a statutory authority established in January 2009. It can be obtained by any residents in India and is linked with basic demographic and biometric information such as a photograph, ten fingerprints and two iris scans, stored in a centralised database.

Aadhaar is not intended to replace any existing identity cards, nor does it constitute proof of citizenship. It can be verified and authenticated in an easy and cost-effective way online anywhere, anytime by a service provider through a user-friendly Aadhaar Verification Service. A resident already enrolled under the National Population Register is not required to enrol again for Aadhaar.

The World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer described Aadhaar as “the most sophisticated ID programme in the world”. Aadhaar has been slowly and steadily linked with a host of services such as SIM cards, bank accounts, Employee Provident Fund, Direct Benefit Transfer schemes eliminating leakages in the Public Distribution System related with subsidized ration, kerosene, LPG, unemployment benefits etc. This scheme was modified later in November 2014 under which subsidies could be credited to a purchaser’s bank account even if he or she did not have an Aadhaar number. This action was extremely successful in eliminating “ghost beneficiaries”.

UIDAI also introduced face authentication to further strengthen Aadhaar security so that people facing difficulties in other existing mode of verification such as iris, fingerprints and One Time Password (OTP) which can easily authenticate.  The greatest success of Aadhaar was in weeding out illegal aliens, duplicate ration, voter and PAN cards, fake bank accounts and also smoothening and streamlining many other areas mentioned above. As of July 2018 over 1.22 billion Indians are enrolled in Aadhaar, representing about 90 per cent of the total estimated population. Good!

Reportedly, there have been some errors in the registration process. Some people had received Aadhaar with wrong photographs or fingerprints.  The detailed personal information is not being treated with the required sensitivity for privacy concerns. Major financial transactions are linked with information collected in Aadhaar. Data leaks are a gold mine for criminals who now use sophisticated hackers. Government departments and various other agencies that collect this information such as banks cannot be trusted to maintain the secrecy of all this collected information. A case occurred wherein Aadhaar data collected by a mobile service provider was leaked online, and the data may now be widely available to hackers.

Strengthening UIDAI
The good news is that steps are being implemented to strengthen security of Aadhaar. On March 1, 2018, Virtual ID, aka VID, was introduced and was made as an option for agencies to use Virtual ID by September 1, 2018. A Virtual ID is a 16 digit number that is generated using Aadhaar number. This Virtual ID can then be used instead of your Aadhaar number to carry out some Aadhaar related work.

Various Judgements
On September 23, 2013 the Supreme Court (SC) issued an interim order stating “no person should suffer for not getting Aadhaar” adding that the government cannot deny a service to a resident who does not possess Aadhaar, as it is voluntary and not mandatory. On August 24, 2017, SC upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the Constitution.

Finally, on September 26, 2018, the SC struck down Sec. 57 of the Aadhaar Act meaning that private entities cannot compel their customers to provide their Aadhaar to verify their identity. The SC upheld the validity of the Aadhaar system on various grounds including privacy, surveillance, and exclusion from welfare benefits. It nevertheless stipulated that the Aadhaar is not mandatory for opening bank accounts, getting a mobile number, or being admitted to a school. However, it did uphold its requirement for income tax filing and welfare programs.

Final Position

  • Linking bank account with Aaadhar has been done away with.
  • Sec. 57 of the Aadhaar Act has been stuck down. Consequently, no private company can ask for Aadhaar details of their customers. This includes procuring SIM cards, school admissions or enrolment in exams of NEET, CBSE and UGC.
  • Linking Aadhaar and PAN remains mandatory.
  • Aadhaar will not be provided to illegal migrants.
  • The government should introduce a strong data protection law as soon as possible.

What has gone wrong is that the Aadhaar is not a secure document (being printed on paper) with its associated QR code containing all the information of the cardholder which is shared with all the users. All that was necessary was to give the user an online validation, confirming only the data required by the user. The entire information related to the cardholder should have been restricted to the use of the government and no one else.

Now the customer’s data is vulnerable to counterfeiting and also attack by cyber manipulators. It is also extremely useful data to all companies for conducting market analysis.  NRIs, overseas citizens of India, and other resident foreigners may also find it difficult to avail themselves of services they could previously freely obtain, such as local SIM cards, despite assurances to the contrary.

To conclude
As observed many times in the past, all the dreams of our PM such as demonetisation, GST etc., are super excellent and if implemented properly, the Indian economy would thrive by leaps and bounds. The only problem is that the bureaucrats entrusted with the mandate to implement it mishandle it. The total expenses incurred by the country so far is estimated at between Rs 60,000 and Rs. 70,000 crore. Now the right to privacy has rendered most of this expense totally useless. Can we afford this colossal loss? We wonder…

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