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The world largest’s biometric database: A step forward or a privacy risk for patients?

A recent Supreme Court ruling could have implications for India's biometric database Aadhaar. 41765738 - national legal system concept with flag on sound block - india Copyright: <a href=''>niyazz / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
A recent Supreme Court ruling could have implications for India’s biometric database Aadhaar.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that privacy is an inherent right of Indian people. This is a landmark verdict which could have implications for biometric database Aadhaar.

The largest biometric database in the world

Aadhaar is a national identification system, promoted by the Indian government. More than 1.12 billion Indians – more than 88 percent of the population – are now enrolled on the system.  This makes it the largest biometric database in the world.

Aadhaar is rapidly becoming a necessity of everyday life in India. It is needed for accessing a number of services, such as filing tax returns to sitting open school exams. It is even needed – controversially – by TB patients to access financial assistance from the government, as Health Issues India reported earlier this year.

Aadhaar has earned the admiration of a number of prominent figures. Former Indian President Pranab Mukherjee regards the implementation of Aadhaar as a “watershed event” in India’s history. World Bank Chief Economist Paul Romer, meanwhile, extols it as “the most sophisticated I.D. programme in the world” and thinks “it could be good for the world if this became widely adopted.”

“An unprecedented need for regulation”

Visual representation of an Aadhaar card.

Despite the praise, Aadhaar has fuelled controversy over privacy concerns and its potential for “identity theft, government surveillance and security breaches.” The Supreme Court ruling seems to lend some validity to those concerns. This is despite it not being the unequivocal win” Aadhaar critics wanted, as noted by Firstpost. The rulng is highly unlikely to leading the Aadhaar bsystem ebeing scrapped entirely.

Nonetheless, the Supreme Court’s privacy ruling will have implications for Aadhaar. The ruling puts tech companies “on notice”, according to CNN. Noting the voluminous and varied personal data stored by tech companies, the court says “there is an unprecedented need for regulation regarding [how] such information can be stored, processed and used.” Such regulation would almost inevitably encompass

Aadhaar, which stores data such as an individual’s fingerprints and iris scans.

Privacy concerns

Aadhaar-related privacy concerns are especially pronounced when talking about health. It is possible to hack Aadhaar – as many incidents  have shown. This exacerbates concerns over the vulnerability of patients’ information if medical history were to be stored.

Government plans to link health records with the Aadhaar database prompted particular concern, as well as confusion over who exactly would own the data. It is unclear whether it would be the government or the patient.

Either scenario could prove potentially problematic. If the government were to own the data, it could constitute an invasion of privacy that could be grounds for legal action. This is particularly pronounced after the Supreme Court’s ruling. It could also be viewed as a breach of the Aadhaar Act itself, which exempts health-related data from the information under the system’s purview.

However, if the person were to own their own data, this may prevent the government from using it for purposes such as epidemiological analyses of disease outbreaks and health information exchanges.

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