Aadhaar Conundrum

ON Sunday, the central government withdrew with immediate effect its recent advisory that warned citizens not to share photocopies of their Aadhaar cards with any organization as they can be misused. The government, in a statement, said that the UIDAI issued Aadhaar card holders are only advised to exercise “normal prudence” in using and sharing their UIDAI Aadhaar numbers. “Aadhaar Identity Authentication ecosystem has provided adequate features for protecting and safeguarding the identity and privacy of the Aadhaar holder,” the statement added.

Earlier, the UIDAI had warned people not to share photocopies of Aadhaar with any organisations, saying that it could be misused. The authority had advised the use of masked Aadhaar which displays only the last 4 digits of your Aadhaar number and can be downloaded from UIDAI’s official website. A release issued by the UIDAI had also called for avoiding using a public computer at an internet cafe to download an e-Aadhaar. And if one did so, the authority had urged the deletion of all the downloaded copies of e-Aadhaar permanently from that computer.

There was more. Only those organizations that had obtained a User License from the UIDAI could use Aadhaar for establishing the identity of a person. Unlicensed private entities like hotels or film halls were not permitted to collect or keep copies of Aadhaar card. And if a private entity demanded to see the Aadhaar card or sought a photocopy of the Aadhaar card, one had to ask whether they had a valid User License from the UIDAI.

This made privacy activists feel vindicated. And rightly so. Aadhar has been a controversial identity card since the beginning. A large section of the population thought it compromised their privacy. This understandably generated civil society and political opposition but to no avail as the government stuck to its guns. But as the latest review of the sharing of the Aadhaar card underlines, the government is rethinking the issue.

However, Aadhaar is not the only point of concern for privacy advocates. The government’s alleged surveillance of computers and social media has long been a source of contention. The catch-all excuse for this action is the special security requirement for the state that is supposed to warrant the early neutering of the sources of trouble. Earlier also, the UPA government had sought to screen the “offensive” content on the social networking sites after having allegedly failed to get these websites to take it off themselves. But such moves have always been contested by the media and public quarters, which see the contemplated measures as a trojan horse attack on freedom of expression in the country, forcing the government to back off.

The issue here is not the objectionable stuff on the internet, of which there is plenty, and it is nobody’s case to defend it in the name of freedom of speech, but the government’s plan to play the judge. The problem is that this stuff comes in a variety of ways, so it is really a complex business to sift one part of it as offensive while justifying or overlooking another part. More so, when it is a government with its own interests which sits on judgment on this. So, the need is to get civil society on board before the laws impinging on privacy are enacted.

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