Indian government allows expanded private sector use of Aadhaar through ordinance (but still no movement on data protection law)

On Thursday, the Indian government approved an ordinance — an extraordinary procedure allowing the government to enact legislation without Parliamentary approval — that threatens to dilute the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision last September.

The Court had placed fundamental limits to the otherwise ubiquitous use of Aadhaar, India’s biometric ID system, including the requirement of an authorizing law for any private sector use. While the ordinance purports to provide this legal backing, its broad scope could dilute both the letter and intent of the judgment. As per the ordinance, companies will now be able to authenticate using Aadhaar as long as the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) is satisfied that “certain standards of privacy and security” are met. These standards remain undefined, and especially in the absence of a data protection law, this raises serious concerns.

The swift movement to foster expanded use of Aadhaar is in stark contrast to the lack of progress on advancing a data protection bill that would safeguard the rights of Indians whose data is implicated in this system. Aadhaar continues to be effectively mandatory for a vast majority of Indian residents, given its requirement for the payment of income tax and various government welfare schemes. Mozilla has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a centralized database of biometric information and authentication logs.

The implementation of these changes with no public consultation only exacerbates the lack of public accountability that has plagued the project. We urge the Indian government to consider the serious privacy and security risks from expanded private sector use of Aadhaar. The ordinance will need to gain Parliamentary approval in the upcoming session (and within six months) or else it will lapse. We urge the Parliament not to push through this law which clearly dilutes the Supreme Court’s diktat, and any subsequent proposals must be preceded by wide public consultation and debate.