Campaign Snapshot: Educating the public about India’s Aadhaar biometric system

THE SPARK

In 2009, India established the Unique Identity Authority of India, responsible for issuing 12-digit identification numbers to any resident who enrolled in the Aadhaar program.

To obtain an Aadhaar number, people must submit biometric data including face, fingerprints and iris scans, in addition to sensitive personal information.

It has since become the world’s largest biometric database, with an estimated 1.2 billion Indians in the system as of June 2018.

Enrolment was officially voluntary. However, after launching the program, government ministries and private bodies began requiring an Aadhaar number for various services and transactions. This was challenged through multiple cases in the Supreme Court, with the first one filed in 2012.

SFLC.in realised early on that there was a great deal of misinformation, misunderstanding and confusion muddying the waters around Aadhaar, confusing the public about the issues at stake. We decided to focus our efforts on consolidating and spreading accurate knowledge about it and its potential impacts on human rights while the legal challenges took place. 

THE CAMPAIGN 

We judged that producing accurate information regarding the latest legal and technical developments around Aadhaar would be useful to better inform the policymakers, lawyers, journalists, and laypeople who were debating its applicability.

The government had claimed that Aadhaar was completely secure; it was not. In 2017 we researched and published data about breaches and leaks linked to third party databases.

Beginning on 17 January 2018, we reported on each day of the 38-day hearing that took place in the Supreme Court, live-tweeting the proceedings and maintaining a daily blog.

When there was a win, we shared it. While the Aadhaar cases were pending in the Supreme Court, our legal director Prasanth Sugathan obtained a favourable order from the High Court of Kerala for filing his income tax return without quoting an Aadhaar number. We made the necessary information available online so that others could follow in his footsteps.

In sum over the course of this campaign, we created:

  • a detailed timeline of the program beginning in 2006;
  • a list of litigations around Aadhaar, beginning in 2012;
  • a list of notifications that made Aadhaar mandatory;
  • a FAQ sheet about Aadhaar, post-Supreme Court ruling
  • an explainer about the Court’s 2018 judgment
  • a database of violations of Supreme Court’s orders on Aadhaar;
  • an analysis comparing the Aadhaar Bill (that was later turned into a law) with the national privacy principles.
  • an analysis of what was changed in the Aadhaar Amendment Bill (now passed into law).

On 26 September 2018, a nine-judge bench of India’s Supreme Court ruled the use of Aadhaar valid, but limited its use to benefits derived from the Consolidated Fund of India – not by private corporations, and not more broadly by other governmental bodies.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruling continues to be ignored by a number of authorities and organizations, so we have since broadened our work to helping people file legal representations with those bodies which continue to illegally require the use of Aadhaar.

KEY CHALLENGES

  • A climate of misinformation and rumours: We needed to find a way to ensure that correct information was not just available, but recognized as credible, to contain the spread of misinformation, misunderstanding and confusion regarding Aadhaar.
  • Accessibility. India is a multi-lingual country with dozens of official languages and hundreds of unofficial languages. At the minimum, we aimed to be featured by English, Hindi and Malayalam newspapers and television news channels. Combined, these languages are spoken by over half the population, but this still leaves out millions of Indians. The information on our website can directly reach only those who have internet, can read English and are aware enough of this issue to seek information on it.
  • People’s willingness to surrender privacy for convenience: The selling points for Aadhaar were strong: it offered convenience in exchange for something intangible – their sensitive personal information. People were generally unaware of the price they were paying for convenience. Proponents of Aadhaar also sold the image that it helped curb corrupt practices.
  • The complexity and long timeline of legal challenges. This campaign lasted for years. There were continual violations of Supreme Court orders, and many other complications. Frequently, goalposts had to be shifted. When combined, these could seem daunting, even demoralizing. 

LESSONS LEARNED

  • Listen and respond to those directly affected: Directly engaging with people being forced to use Aadhaar helped us in gathering information about violations of the Supreme Court’s orders, and inspired us to create templates that could be used by any lay person to oppose unwarranted demands for Aadhaar.
  • Do your research: When preparing arguments for or against a complex policy position, we found it extremely helpful to our credibility and impact to have a complete timeline of events and as much information as possible.
  • Be focused: There are too many moving parts to tackle them all, and it is crucial to focus on a few key areas where you can have the maximum impact. In our case, that meant focusing on public awareness and mobilization.
  • You can’t do it alone: When taking on a mammoth multi-year campaign, it is important to have allies in the cause doing research, organizing regular discussions, preparing cases filed in courts, reporting on the outcomes of the hearings at the Supreme Court, and covering different aspects of the issue. Ongoing discussions with allies are crucial.
  • Be clear: Lawyers and researchers often write in complex terms. When trying to spread knowledge or explain an issue, pay attention to the words that you’re using so that you don’t unnecessarily complicate the message. Long and complicated words look good because they make you look knowledgeable, but they don’t help in conveying your message to the largest number of people.
  • Don’t lose hope: When a campaign gets stretched over many years without any concrete results, patience can wear thin, and people can begin to lose hope. At times like these, it is critical to have a team cheerleader reminding the team why they started doing what they are doing, and pump energy back into the movement. 

CAMPAIGN PARTNERS  

 This was a long-drawn campaign, with collaboration between many individuals and groups at various points in time. Lawyers and researchers too numerous to name were critical in gathering and spreading information and initiating legal actions. Officially, we were not united under one banner, but we worked together to share information and exchange views about the campaign, whether in informal discussions or organised round tables. This helped shape the course of research and actions taken by all of us. Organisations including IT For Change, Centre for Internet and Society, Digital Empowerment Foundation, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Free Software Movement of India, and SFLC.in board members including Mr. Vickram Crishna and Mr. G. Nagarjuna, were among many others involved in the cause.

 WHAT’S NEXT

 We remain vigilant, and a system as pervasively distributed and subject to potential abuse as Aadhaar gives us plenty of opportunities to continue our work with lawmakers, journalists, and the public at large in defense of human rights.

The latest development has been an amendment of the law to again allow use of Aadhaar for telecom and banking. We are currently considering the viability of challenging this amendment in a court of law. In July 2019, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare proposed the use of Aadhaar for accessing medical insurance financed by the Consolidated Fund of India. Our comments on this are available here.

LEARN MORE

For more on SFLC.in’s ongoing work on Aadhaar and other digital age threats to human rights in India, bookmark their website and check back regularly for updates!

The post Campaign Snapshot: Educating the public about India’s Aadhaar biometric system appeared first on IFEX.

Source: MEDIA FEED

HRNJ-UG Admin

Human Rights Network for Journalists-Uganda (HRNJ-Uganda) is a network of human rights journalists in Uganda working towards enhancing the promotion, protection and respect of human rights through defending and building the capacities of journalists, to effectively exercise their constitutional rights and fundamental freedoms for collective campaigning through the media.

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