A private matter: the cracks in India’s Aadhaar programme

by Amruta Mahakalkar via StockSnap
by Amruta Mahakalkar via StockSnap

While India’s Aadhaar system of digital identity has been held up as an example of efficient modernisation and forward thinking, it has its dark side: as Quartz reports, data breaches.

Obviously, any information online is vulnerable to leaks and hacks. And when it comes to personal information, those come at a cost – even if there is no direct monetary loss, the focus on privacy and natural rights throws into question the “platformisation” of our daily lives. In democracies, this could well lead to a pedalling back of reforms, and a pervasive suspicion of technology in general, neither of which would be good for growth.

Privacy is something that needs to be debated, though, especially in this increasingly connected world. Over the past few decades, personal space has taken on a whole new meaning, as has crime. And our understanding of natural rights is developing, along with what could be perceived as infringements.

Rumblings of discontent over government interference were present in India even before Aadhaar rolled out. Recently they have been growing in volume, even taking the shape of lawsuits.

The official response to a particular challenge in 2012 was startling: there is no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian constitution.

This week, the Supreme Court overturned that statement, declaring that privacy is, indeed, a fundamental right.

The intensity of the questions will no doubt get kicked up a notch. What does that mean? What are the implications for digital identity? Can we safely combine privacy and connectivity?

Unpacking this case, we uncover many other fundamental issues: the impact on humanity of the relentless march of technology; the separation of the courts and the government; the cost we are willing to bear for improved efficiency… And that’s just scratching the surface.

A deeper consequence, perhaps the most important of all, is that the development of Aadhaar in India has shed light on how little we comprehend about fundamental concepts, and how the big picture gets lost in the scoreboard of goals achieved.

Hopefully the matters under consideration will awaken deep debate, and get renowned thinkers from all fields involved in the conversation. The whole world should listen, and join in, for we all stand to benefit.

With this, we can hopefully move towards a deeper understanding of what privacy actually means.

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