Two distinct processes based on questionable premises and exaggerated benefits are converging, threatening individual liberties in India. The convergence can severely undermine existing constitutional interpretation of the right to privacy. The proposed Human DNA Profiling Bill, if passed and enacted as law, is an ambitious project that will gradually expand and catalogue the profile of every Indian. The Unique Identification Authority (UID) of India oversees the assigning of a randomly generated number to each Indian as proof of the person’s identity, regardless of his or her caste, religion or ethnicity. But the authority lacks statutory backing.
Both are technical solutions to address complex human problems. Both are marketed as benign innovations without sinister implications. The UID project, popularly known as Aadhaar, is presented as a simple way to authenticate an individual’s identity and prevent fraud so that benefits reach the right person. For the poor, who lack other forms of identification, the system is meant to eliminate hurdles and reduce the likelihood of corruption. The DNA project aims to assist in solving crimes, identify victims after a natural disaster, and trace missing persons, but the database will include “volunteers” and any other index that regulators wish to add. Both projects have advanced with limited scrutiny of their impact on individual privacy, and in both instances, authorities in charge of the project have said—trust us, there is no hidden agenda.
The DNA project was conceived in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era, and the UID project during the Manmohan Singh years. There is bipartisan support precisely because it strengthens the state, not the individual; it empowers the government, not the citizens; it extends the reach of the state and its agencies to intrude deeper into people’s lives, offering limited protection to the people.
The underlying message is—trust the government. To be sure, the DNA project can have positive outcomes, such as identifying missing persons or victims of disasters. DNA-based evidence can also establish the innocence of a defendant in a criminal case. Proper identification can, in theory, protect the poor from getting short-changed, and intermediaries will find it harder to inflate the number of beneficiaries and pocket the difference.
But a nationwide database that links individuals with their DNA, connecting personal data with biometric information, gives enormous powers to the state, and there are few credible safeguards. In a Supreme Court case where petitioners challenged the Aadhaar card being made compulsory, attorney general Mukul Rohatgi argued that privacy is not a fundamental right in India. But Shyam Divan and Gopal Subramanium, appearing for the petitioners, countered his narrow interpretation. Rohatgi’s assertion is not as monumental as Niren De’s during the Emergency, when De, then attorney general, said that the right to life was at the mercy of the state. But the philosophy is the same—that between the individual and the state, the state triumphs, not the individual.
That assumes a benign state, but no state is truly benign. Democratic countries with superior technologies and well-established search-and-seizure authority have set rigorous standards to protect individual privacy. Their bureaucracies have learned the hard way that over-reliance on data can be counterproductive, and there have been repeated failures of protecting data. Besides, as Edward Snowden’s revelations about the US show, even governments that have strong laws respecting individual rights ignore restraints on their powers. Nobody likes being accused of being soft on terrorism, particularly in times of strife.
The officials who administer Aadhaar may say that they are only assigning random numbers to individuals. But once that database is accessible to other agencies—government and private—they can link or match the data with other databases and get a precise profile of individuals beyond what is strictly necessary: what are their preferences and tastes; to which communities they belong; and with whom they interact. A rogue government can impose mass surveillance on a scale unimagined, enabling the state to track any individual. Databases can be linked easily and there are no safeguards to prevent misuse. Agencies—public and private—have demanded Aadhaar numbers from Indians performing routine transactions or seeking access to government services, without explaining why the numbers are needed.
The DNA-mapping project also categorizes people by caste. What purpose does that serve? When such data is overlaid with data from Aadhaar, which has people’s addresses, it makes the job of identifying specific groups simpler. Given India’s record of communal violence, it is not far-fetched to think that anthropologists, demographers or market researchers are not the only ones who would want access to such data.
Technology can have enormous uses and it would be Luddite to argue against its use. But privacy is too important to be left to technocrats alone. These systems need robust safeguards to protect the individual from the reach of the state. Governments with far clearer constitutional protection for individual rights have failed doing it. What makes Indian authorities so certain they’d get it right?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.