India court backs world’s largest digital ID plan


NEW DELHI • India’s top court has refused to scrap the world’s largest biometric database, upholding the validity of the sprawling digital-identity (ID) programme but imposing restrictions on its use — including preventing the government from sharing citizens’ data with private companies.

Four out of five Supreme Court judges said the programme is constitutionally sound for the distribution of state-sponsored welfare subsidies in a country where nearly a quarter of the 1.3 billion-strong population is poor. However, it cannot be made mandatory for opening bank accounts or providing mobile-phone connections, Justice AK Sikri told the courtroom, though it is required for Indians paying income tax.

Under the Aadhaar programme, a unique 12-digit ID number is assigned to Indians after collecting their biometric data and photographs. With the top court’s backing, the government can continue to expand its identification system for state subsidies and services, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that call for providing an ID for all by 2030.

The ruling will not significantly hold back Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Digital India” push to move government services and subsidies into the digital realm. The verdict is also likely to clear up widespread confusion after Indians were asked to link their Aadhaar number to maintain their bank accounts and mobilephone connections.

The ruling follows petitions by activists and lawyers, who argued the programme violates citizens’ privacy and creates a surveillance state by building a central repository for data linked to all services.