“Surveillance is like salt in cooking which is essential in tiny quantities, but counterproductive even if slightly in excess” ~Sunil Abraham
Mass Surveillance is the system of surveillance of intact population in order to monitor that group of citizens. States who promote this arugue that it is an integral part of any state in order to fight terrorism. On the contrary, mass surveillance has often been criticized for being violative of privacy rights, limiting civil & political rights and being illegal under some legal or constitutional systems. Another criticism is that increasing mass surveillance could lead to the development of a Surveillance State where civil liberties are infringed or political discord is undermined. Such a state could be referred to as a Totalitarian State. India is also not lagging behind with the notion of “Absolutism” where the state imposes any legislation irrespective of being violative of citizens’ fundamental rights. India has introduced a biometric card project AADHAR also labelled as the world’s biggest Mass Surveillance Project.
Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique identification number issued to all Indian residents based on their biometrics (including fingerprints and iris scans) and demographic data. The data is collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) a statutory authority established on 12 July, 2016 by the government of India, under the provisions of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016. It’s used, among other things, to verify the identity of a person receiving a government subsidy or a service. This trailblazing project is aimed at obtaining demographic and biometric informations and being forced upon Indian citizens, with no choice for an individual to opt-out of the system. The Indian government has claimed that setting up Aadhaar would establish a system of protection against corruption in the dispensation of social benefits. However, unlike countries where similar schemes have been implemented, invasive biometric collection is being imposed as a condition for basic amenities in
India. The privacy and surveillance risks associated with the scheme have caused much dissension in India.
As of March 2018, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has issued 1.15 billion UIDs covering nearly 89.5% of the population making Aadhaar, the largest biometric database in the world. By rapidly working towards linking Aadhaar with all public and some private transactions, the government has moved away from its initial agenda and instead towards achieving a surveillance society. This draconian ID system is linking with every aspect of an individual’s life, from booking train tickets, registering marriages, or seeking scholarships, to mobile phone numbers, bank accounts, and schools and colleges. In many of these cases, it is mandatory. The aggregation of this data, along with various other data sets interlinked to Aadhaar, will enable the government to trace the movements, social relationships, and interactions of residents so that their private lives are laid bare. Once such data is in the government’s hands, wide latitude in access and use facilitates government abuse. Indeed, coercive application of Aadhaar creates a potential for mass surveillance, which in turn threatens the privacy of Indian citizens. From another perspective, it may be said that now a person is bound by this AADHAR Act to mandatorily have a mobile under any circumstances to get his AADHAR card which is expressly in violation of his liberty.
For the survival of a democracy, privacy and the rights of citizens cannot be compromised. Privacy, as Professor Alan Westin points out, provides for personal autonomy. Without autonomy, individuals cease to exist and lose all productivity. Communist and fascist regimes thrived on depriving citizens of their autonomy. Is it going to be the same in India too? Privacy gives people an opportunity for emotional release. Without this, citizens will be constantly under watch, unable to express themselves. Nandan Nilekani, who joined the UPA government as the first chairman of the scheme, seems to have succeeded in creating the world’s biggest surveillance engine, ensuring that any government will have complete access to all the data of the citizen, and can use it to manipulate any one at will. Citizens have no protection against this surveillance any more. Section 33 of the Aadhaar Act ensures that under the guise of “national security”, the government can access any information without providing any explanation to anyone. It does not define what is “national security” so any reason can be used to access and use this data.
On 8th April, 2014, just a month before becoming the PM of India, Mr. Narendra Modi remarked about Aadhar in this way: “On Aadhar, neither the team that I met nor the PM could answer my questions on security threat it can pose. There is no vision, only political gimmick.” And today, under Prime Minister Modi’s government, the rules promulgated under the Aadhaar Act 2016, the Unique Identification Authority of India can file a FIR against any citizen who questions its security. What he called a political gimmick, a scheme without vision, has now become his government’s signature scheme. Be it any government or political parties, the mindset remains same and it’s all about a chance to mandate compliance as Lord Acton puts it, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In October 2015, the Supreme Court made it clear that The Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is decided by the Court one way or another. In September 2016, the Supreme Court once again reiterated this position. In fact, it sought an explanation from the government and asked it to remove a condition making it mandatory for the students to give their Aadhaar numbers for various scholarship schemes, despite a five-bench order that had restrained the Central government. Making Aadhaar mandatory to file IT returns ensures that this order is wilfully ignored and in fact seems to hold the Supreme Court’s order in contempt. This clearly indicates that government is transforming India undoubtedly into an Absolutist or Totalitarian State where the role of judiciary is no or less!
Aadhaar is a mass surveillance technology. Unlike targeted surveillance, which is a good thing and essential for national security and public order, mass surveillance undermines security. And while biometrics is appropriate for targeted surveillance by the state, it is wholly inappropriate for everyday transactions between the state and law abiding citizens. No matter the specific techniques involved, historically mass surveillance has had several constant attributes. Initially, it is always the country’s unorthodox and marginalized who bear the brunt of the surveillance. And history is evident that mere prevalence of a mass surveillance mechanism, irrespective of its usage, is suffice to stifle dissent.
“A citizenry that is aware of always being watched quickly becomes a compliant and fearful one!”
- “Aadhaar face authentication: Are we going to be a total surveillance state like China?” ~DailyO.in
- “India’s dodgy mass surveillance project should concern us all” ~ Rhyea Malik and Subhajit Basu, The Wired (U.K.) 25 Aug 2017
- “The end of privacy: Aadhaar is being converted into the world’s biggest surveillance engine” ~ Saikat Datta, The Hindu Mar 24, 2017
- “Checks and balances needed for mass surveillance of citizens” ~ Peerjada Abrar , The Hindu, December 09, 2017
- “Aadhaar: Ushering in a Commercialized Era of Surveillance in India”, ~ Jyoti Pandey, The Hindu, June 1, 2017
- “What the Right to Privacy Judgment Means for Aadhaar and Mass Surveillance!” ~ The wire, 24 aug 2017
- “Aadhaar case: Why SC needs to look into technical evidence of Aadhaar’s surveillance capabilities” ~ Asheeta Regidi, Feb 02, 2018
- “Is Aadhar a breach of privacy?” ~ Sunil Abraham, R.S. Sharma and Baijayant Jay Panda, The Hindu, March 31 2017
- “No place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State” ~ Glenn Greenwald, Penguin Books, 2014
- UIDAI website
B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) [6th Semester], School of Law and Governance,
Central University of South Bihar