Is Aadhaar a breach of privacy?

March 31, 2017 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 10:45 pm IST

Aadhaar is very poorly designed. The technology needs fixing today; the law can wait for tomorrow


Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Centre for Internet and Society

Aadhaar is mass surveillance technology. Unlike, targeted surveillance which is a good thing, and essential for national security and public order — mass surveillance undermines security. And while biometrics is appropriate for targeted surveillance by the state — it is wholly inappropriate for everyday transactions between the state and law abiding citizens.

When assessing a technology don't ask — “what use it is being put to today?”. Instead ask “what use can it be put to tomorrow and by whom?”. The original noble intentions of the Aadhaar project initiators will not constrain those in the future that want to take full advantage of technological possibilities.  However, rather than frame the surveillance potential of Aadhaar in a negative tone as three problem statements — I will propose three modifications that will reduce but not eliminate the surveillance potential.

Shift from biometrics to smart cards

 In January 2011, the Centre for Internet and Society had written to the parliamentary finance committee that was reviewing what was then called the “National Identification Authority of India Bill 2010”. We provided nine reasons for the government to stop using biometrics and instead use an open smart card standard. Biometrics allows for identification of citizens even when they don't want to be identified. Even unconscious and dead citizens can be identified using biometrics. Smart cards which require pins on the other hand require the citizens' conscious cooperation during the identification process. Once you flush your smart cards down the toilet nobody can use them to identify you. Consent is baked into the design of the technology. If the UIDAI adopts smart cards, we can destroy the centralized database of biometrics just like the UK government did in 2010 under Theresa May's tenure as Home Secretary. This would completely eliminate the risk of foreign government, criminals and terrorists using the breached biometric database to remotely, covertly and non-consensually identify Indians.


Destroy the authentication transaction database

 The Aadhaar Authentication Regulations 2016 specifies that transaction data will be archived for five years after the date of the transaction. Even though the UIDAI claims that this is a zero knowledge database from the perspective of “reasons for authentication” - any big data expert will tell you that it is trivial to guess what is going on using the unique identifiers for the registered devices and time stamps that are used for authentication.  That is how they put Rajat Gupta and Raj Rajratnam in prison. There was nothing in the payload ie. voice recordings of the tapped telephone conversations – the conviction was based on meta-data. Smart cards based on open standards allow for decentralized authentication by multiple entities and therefore eliminates the need for a centralized transaction database.

Prohibit the use Aadhaar number in other databases

 We must as a nation get over our obsession with Know Your Customer [KYC]. For example, for SIM cards there is no KYC requirement is most developed countries. Our insistence on KYC has only resulted in retardation of Internet adoption, a black market for ID documents and unnecessary wastage of resources by the telecos without preventing criminals and terrorists from using phones. Where we must absolutely have KYC for security, elimination of ghosts and regulatory compliance – we must use a token issued by UIDAI instead of the Aadhaar number. This would make it harder for unauthorized parties to combine databases. But at the same time would enable law enforcement agencies to combine database using the appropriate authorizations and infrastructure like NATGRID. The NATGRID unlike Aadhaar is not a centralized database. It is a standard and platform for the express assembly of sub-sets of up to 20 databases which is then access by up to to 12 law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

To conclude, even as a surveillance project — Aadhaar is very poorly designed. The technology needs fixing today, the law can wait for tomorrow.



Aadhaar protects privacy by design. It uses the best possible technology relating to data protection

R.S. Sharma, is a chairman at TRAI. The views expressed are personal

Since its inception, Aadhaar has been criticised as a project which violates privacy. India does not have a law on privacy. In fact, then chairman of UIDAI, Nandan Nilekani, wrote to the Prime Minister as early as in May 2010 suggesting that there was a need to have a data protection and privacy law.

In a digital world, search and aggregation of data have become relatively easy. Aadhaar was designed as a digital identity platform which is inclusive, unique and can be authenticated to participate in any digital transaction. This has transformed the service delivery in our country, conveniencing residents and reducing leakages. Direct benefit transfer, subscription to various services and authentication at the point of service delivery are some of the benefits which have accrued.

In-built privacy

Aadhaar followed the principle of incorporating privacy by design, a concept which states that IT projects should be designed with privacy in mind. Collection of biometrics has often been quoted as one of the means of violating privacy. Biometrics are essential to ensure uniqueness, a key requirement for this project. Additionally, these biometrics can be used for authentication for financial transactions, getting mobile SIMs and various other services using electronic KYC (e-KYC).



Another principle of privacy by design states that you should collect only minimal data. As UIDAI was creating identity infrastructure, it was decided that only a minimal set of data, just sufficient to establish identity, should be collected from residents. This irreducible set contained only four elements: name, gender, age and communication address of the resident.

Another design principle was to issue random numbers with no intelligence. This ensures that no profiling can be done as the number does not disclose anything about the person. The Aadhaar Act has clear restrictions on data sharing. No data download is permitted, search is not allowed and the only response which UIDAI gives to an authentication request is ‘yes’ or ‘no’. No personal information is divulged.

When a biometric-based authentication takes place, it is the individual who must participate in the process by submitting his or her biometrics, typically at the service delivery point to prove his identity. Typical examples are at the time of lifting ration from a PDS shop, opening a bank account to provide eKYC to the bank or submission of Digital Life Certificates by pensioners. The basic purpose of authentication is to facilitate residents in getting service in a digital, paperless and convenient way. As no information is divulged to any agency without the consent of the concerned individual, it cannot be construed to violate any privacy.

Purpose of authentication

Besides the minimal data which UIDAI has about a person, it does not keep any data except the logs of authentication. It does not know the purpose of authentication. The transaction details remain with the concerned agency and not with UIDAI. This is the best model of keeping data where each data-owner has the responsibility of data confidentiality and security.

Aadhaar authentication and e-KYC ensures that documents cannot be misused. Physical papers are amenable to misuse. We know of situations where multiple SIMs are issued based on some document, and the real owner is not even aware. On the other hand, e-KYC ensures that the document cannot be used for any other transaction. UIDAI has also built a facility wherein one can ‘lock’ the Aadhaar number and disable it from any type of authentication for a period of one’s choice, guarding against any potential misuse.



Aadhaar is necessary but we also need a robust data privacy and data protection law


Baijayant Jay Panda, a Lok Sabha MP and frequently pens articles on socially relevant issues

I see many people taking what I call a black-and-white position on Aadhaar. Either they support or red-flag it. I am for Aadhaar but I also feel very strongly about a robust data privacy and data protection law. As a matter of fact, a bill to this effect will be introduced by me in the Lok Sabha. Having said that, I have for long maintained that Aadhaar was the United Progressive Alliance government’s best idea; they were not enthusiastic about it and I wish they had done more. I am also glad that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had earlier opposed Aadhaar, listened to Nandan Nilekani with an open mind and has emerged as its strongest votary.

Plugging loopholes

In my constituency and in other places which I visit frequently, I see enormous leakages in social schemes. Aadhaar can plug these loopholes. I will quote former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who said that out of every rupee spent by the Indian government, barely 15 paisa reaches its citizens. A Planning Commission study done six years ago on the Public Distribution System found 27 paise reaching the citizens. The remaining 73 paise went on payments of salaries, administrative costs and corruption. MPs are required to chair a quarterly review of their constituencies. I do this often and when I ask for an audit, I invariably discover that the district authorities are faced with large number of fake names or fake roll numbers, either for PDS or the mid-day meal scheme. That’s where Aadhaar can help. Look at how Aadhaar assured transparency in LPG allocations. Of course, this was largely achieved by a concerned campaign spearheaded by the Prime Minister himself. Similarly, there are States where PDS has worked comparatively well, but not on all fronts. In Odisha, the rice scheme by the Chief Minister has worked well but the same cannot be said about, say, kerosene distribution.

While that’s one half of the debate, it is also true that we are rapidly becoming a digital economy. We are a nation of billion cell phones and yet we have antiquated laws for data protection and privacy. Problems of ID theft, fraud and misrepresentation are real concerns. We submit ourselves knowingly or unknowingly to personal information sought online, even without Aadhaar. In the U.S., there is a legal battle on to make a case for better informed consent. Let me give an analogy here. In the case of medical emergencies we are required to sign a consent form, often running into pages. In the U.S., it has been decided that it is not enough to sign the consent form; the doctor must explain to the patient the consequences of a medical procedure about to be performed.

Safeguards needed

Similarly, we need to educate people on the risks involved, and highlight examples of ID thefts and fraud. We have a multiplicity of laws which overlap. Our IT laws have to be modernised and we have to put the liability on the company handling the data so that it is not stolen or shared without consent.

This century comes with certain risks. If we want a risk-free environment, as extreme as it may sound, we have the option to go back to the stone age. It is like saying ban cars as driving has become risky. Cars are essential and we create road safety norms to mitigate their risk. Similarly, we need to take a level-headed approach and ensure that ample safeguards are put in place for data protection and privacy.


As told to Anuradha Raman

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