Over a billion Indians are already registered on the world’s largest biometric identification system – known as Aadhaar – which allows Indian citizens to be recognised for the provision of state benefits. The system uses iris scans and fingerprint information to issue a unique identity number. Inclusion on the system was initially voluntary, but new legislation has now been pushed through making Aadhaar necessary for filing tax returns and acquiring a mobile phone. On March 27, this controversial step was locked in by a Supreme Court ruling, which ordered that the government could not be stopped from using the biometric identification system in such a way.
In a notification on March 16, the department of telecommunications ordered Indian mobile service providers to re-verify all existing customers using their unique Aadhaar identity number and biometric details. The deadline for completion is February next year, at which point all unverified mobile phone numbers will become illegal. Similarly, a recent bill passed through parliament will make it mandatory for each person to quote their Aadhaar number when filing an income tax return.
Fears have surfaced that biometric identification is being pushed too far, and that a countrywide system constitutes a form of state surveillance
The move has been met by criticism from multiple angles, with many questioning the potential implications of a misuse of the data. Fears have also surfaced that biometric identification is being pushed too far, and that a countrywide system constitutes an uncomfortable form of state surveillance. Furthermore, the legislation was pushed through parliament as a finance bill, prompting anger that the government bypassed the scrutiny that a non-finance bill would have received. Further fuelling criticisms is the fact that that the Supreme Court had initially ruled that supplying biometric data to the government must be a voluntary decision.
That said, government officials remain enthusiastic about the potential benefits of the scheme, citing large gains in efficiency and the establishment of a powerful tool against corruption. Nandan Nilekani, who was previously Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India, told the Hindustan Times in an interview: “We have seen many instances in the past where people have held multiple PAN numbers and evade taxes. Since more than a billion people already have the Aadhaar number, linking the two will go a long way in dealing with the issue of tax evasion and curbing black money.”