Top Indian court backs use of identification numbers for citizens

India’s top court has upheld the government’s policy of issuing a 12-digit identification number to every citizen.

But the Supreme Court said it cannot be made mandatory for services such as bank accounts, mobile phone connections and school admissions.

In a 4-1 decision, the court said that the government could use the scheme for tax purposes and providing benefits under welfare schemes such as subsidised food items and cooking fuel.

Lawyer Prashan Bhushan said private organisations could not ask for the number because of privacy concerns.

The Indian government has enrolled more than 90% of the country’s 1.3 billion people since it launched the scheme in 2010 linking fingerprints, iris scans and photos of citizens to the unique 12-digit number.

A man gets his retina scanned (Bikas Das/AP)">
A man gets his retina scanned (Bikas Das/AP)

Banks, mobile operators and the government itself started to require identification numbers to access various services.

Rich Indians generally possessed passports, driver’s licences or credit cards that establish who they are.

But the poor were often forced to rely on electricity bills, ration cards, voting cards or letters from local officials.

The government policy was aimed at making a citizen’s identification number override all other prior identity proofs.

Justice AK Sikri, reading out the majority judgment, said the government should put a robust data protection regime in place as early as possible, noting that the attack on the government scheme by petitioners was “based on violation of constitutional rights which they felt led to a surveillance state”.

Judge Sikri, however, said there was no possibility of a person obtaining a duplicate identification number because an adequate defence mechanism was in place.

Justice DY Chandrachud said the collection of data could lead to individual profiling of citizens and the data could be misused by a third party and private vendors without the consent of an individual.

- Press Association

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