Concerns over linking Aadhaar to voter ID and social media accounts

The move to link the voter ID with Aadhaar and the attempts, through PILs, to bring social media accounts also under its ambit stir up the right to privacy debate again.

Published : Sep 15, 2019 06:00 IST

At a special camp to link Aadhaar with voters ID, in Chennai on April 12, 2015. This was later discontinued in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling.

At a special camp to link Aadhaar with voters ID, in Chennai on April 12, 2015. This was later discontinued in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling.

With the once-abandoned project of seeding voter IDs with Aadhaar numbers likely to resume and with the push to link social media accounts, like Facebook or WhatsApp, with Aadhaar, the focus is back on the individual’s right to privacy. It has stirred up a debate on what a nine-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had settled in August 2017, recognising the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the Constitution.

On August 13, the Election Commission wrote to the Law Ministry recommending an amendment to the Representation of the People Act to give legislative cover to link voter IDs with Aadhaar. The Law Ministry’s decision is awaited. As for social media-Aadhaar linking, a number of public interest litigation (PIL) petitions, two from the Madras High Court and one each from the Bombay and the Madhya Pradesh High Courts, are being heard by the Supreme Court. The linking of social media accounts with Aadhaar has been suggested apparently to help law enforcement agencies trace those perpetrating either fake news or committing cybercrimes such as peddling pornography or spreading hate rumours.

A senior Election Commission official, who helmed the voter ID-Aadhaar linking project before it was abandoned in August 2015, confirmed that the Election Commission had once again sent a recommendation to the Law Ministry in this regard and was awaiting its response. “This will help us weed out fake/duplicate voter ID cards,” he told Frontline . He said duplicate voter IDs were a huge problem for the Election Commission as in the case of a voter moving from one place to another and registering himself or herself afresh without cancelling the earlier voter ID.

“In some cases this duplication may be entirely without any motive, but there could be motives for getting enrolled at multiple places in order to cast votes at multiple locations. Seeding the Aadhaar number with the voter ID will help us know if a voter is already registered or not. If yes, then we will just have to change his [or her] address,” he said, adding the linkage would help get rid of bogus voters too.

But experts say otherwise. While Aadhaar is for all residents, who may or may not be citizens, a voter ID is strictly for citizens. The senior official in the Election Commission, however, said differentiating this would not be a problem because the Election Commission asked for other documents/information as well that would disclose whether one was a citizen or not. “One thing is very clear. The linking is only for weeding out bogus/duplicate voters, not to deny a genuine voter. There are checks and balances in the system to take care of that. Just because somebody has produced an Aadhaar number, it would not entitle him to get automatically enrolled in the voter list. For that the booth registration officers will seek other information,” he said.

Security concerns

Nonetheless, security concerns about data being misused for voter profiling and the manipulation of votes remain, as was seen in the Cambridge Analytica case when millions of Facebook accounts in the United States were used to profile voters and influence them. There are no concrete assurances from the Election Commission on this; moreover, vague statements that voters’ data would not be in the public domain and would be kept at the back end only are far from reassuring.

What is also baffling is that no authority in India has conducted any study on security of data and the way to prohibit a security breach before linking multiple data of a billion plus people. In the present situation, once the voter’s data are shared with the biometric service providers, storage and the use of that data is their responsibility.

There is no way even the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) can ensure complete security because the ownership and storage of that data lie entirely with the biometric service providers. In the case of the UIDAI, the biometric service providers are all foreign companies incorporated in the U.S., as is clear from the contract.

Surreptitious move

The way the voter ID was sought to be linked with Aadhaar surreptitiously in March 2015 too makes the entire exercise suspect. At that time, the Election Commission launched a pilot project called the National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme, which was basically to weed out duplicate/bogus voters using Aadhaar numbers.

The collection of Aadhaar numbers, without any legislative sanction, continued until August that year but came to an abrupt end when the Supreme Court specified in August 2015 that Aadhaar was strictly to be used only for availing welfare services such as subsidised rations and kerosene from the public distribution system or LPG cylinders. Although the Supreme Court categorically said that Aadhaar could not be used for opening bank accounts or for buying SIM cards, it did not say anything about the voter ID. But by the time the exercise was stopped, the data of over 32 crore voters had been collected by the Election Commission and linked with their voter IDs.

The haphazard manner in which data collection was done and then stopped abruptly resulted in 28 lakh voters’ names getting deleted from the electoral list in Telangana. This came to light during the Telangana Assembly election in 2018. Following many Right to Information queries, the Election Commission grudgingly admitted that these names had been deleted by mistake during the process of verification.

The senior Election Commission officer, admitting this error, told Frontline that it was precisely to eliminate the possibility of such misadventures that the Election Commission wanted legal sanction to link the two sets of data. “Once a legal framework is established, it will get better. Since the process requires amending the Representation of the People Act, it has to go through Parliament and then pass approval from various government departments, which will naturally take care of these concerns. It will not be started without taking care of security concerns,” he said.

But according to legal experts, the very idea of linking so much data is fraught with dangers. “Information is the next big thing. The wars of tomorrow would not be fought on the ground, these would be fought in cyberspace, and we would be compromising our national security by handing over so much data of our citizens to foreign bodies,” said Aishwarya Bhati, a Supreme Court lawyer. She filed an impleading petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of Col. (retd) Mathew Thomas, an activist campaigning against the linking of Aadhaar with other data, when the Puttaswamy case (challenging the government’s scheme for a uniform biometrics-based identity card) was being heard by the nine-judge Constitution Bench.

Social media-Aadhaar linking

Even more outrageous is the idea of linking of social media accounts with Aadhaar as it completely denudes a citizen of all privacy and makes a mockery of the Supreme Court ruling that the right to privacy is a fundamental right. The issue reached the apex court after Facebook approached the Supreme Court pleading that different petitions pending in different High Courts could result in multiple judgments and cause confusion.

Appearing for the Tamil Nadu government, Attorney General K.K. Venugopal emphasised the need to link social media accounts with the Aadhaar number and said social media account holders’ details should, if required, be shared with law enforcement agencies too. “The linking of social media profiles of users with Aadhaar is needed to check fake news, defamatory articles, pornographic material and anti-national and terror contents in online media,” he told the Supreme Court on August 20. The matter is scheduled to be heard next on September 13.

“But this exposes me to the danger of my account being hacked and objectionable material being posted from my social media account, making me liable for prosecution,” said Col. (retd) Thomas. An honours graduate in missile technology from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, Col. Thomas served in the Indian Army during the 1962 and 1971 wars. He is the founder secretary of Citizens’ Action Forum, a non-governmental organisation that works for good governance.

As one who is adept at designing security protocols while handling large databases and networks, he says he is shocked at the perfunctory manner in which the Aadhaar story is unfolding. “Linking just one number with all possible data of citizens is the biggest sham that could happen in any democracy. This number is neither unique, nor secured, nor is it an ID. It is not clear why the government is so excited about this interlinking business,” he told Frontline (see interview).

According to him, no developed country or even developing country has adopted such a huge programme for profiling of its citizens. The U.S. and the United Kingdom started it at some point but dropped the idea. “India and Pakistan are the only two countries in the world that have this programme. Do you know it is the same biometric service provider for both the countries?” he said.

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