The Indian government’s mandatory biometric identification project, Aadhaar, could lead to millions of people being denied access to essential services and benefits in violation of their human rights, Amnesty International India and Human Rights Watch said today. The large-scale collection of personal and biometric data, and linking it to a range of services, also raises serious concerns about violations of the right to privacy.
The government should order an independent investigation of the concerns raised about Aadhaar, and cease targeting journalists and researchers who expose vulnerabilities in security, privacy, and protection of data, the organizations said.
“Making an Aadhaar card a prerequisite to access essential services and benefits can obstruct access to several constitutional rights, including the rights of people to food, healthcare, education and social security,” said Aakar Patel, executive director at Amnesty International India. “The government has a legal and moral obligation to ensure that nobody is denied their rights simply because they don’t have an Aadhaar card.”
The Aadhaar project is run by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a statutory body of the Indian government set up in 2009. It collects personal and biometric data such as fingerprints, facial photographs, and iris scans, and issues 12-digit individualized identity numbers. Aadhaar was initially meant to be voluntary, aimed at eliminating fraud in government welfare programs and giving people a form of identification.
However, the Aadhaar Act of 2016 and subsequent notifications and licensing agreements dramatically increased the scope of the project, making Aadhaar enrollment mandatory for people to access a range of essential services and benefits including government subsidies, pensions, and scholarships. It has also been linked to services such as banking, insurance, telephone, and the internet.
Shops providing subsidized food grains as part of the government’s public distribution system to people living in poverty have denied supplies to eligible families because they did not have an Aadhaar number, or because they had not linked it to their ration cards – which confirm their eligibility, or because the authentication of their biometrics such as fingerprints failed. Local human rights groups and media have reported some cases in which people starved to death as a result. Poor internet connectivity, machine malfunction, and worn out fingerprints such as those of older people or manual laborers have further exacerbated the problem of biometric authentication.
According to activists in Rajasthan state, between September 2016 and June 2017, after the Aadhaar authentication was made mandatory, at least 2.5 million families were unable to get food rations. In October 2017, the central government instructed states not to deny subsidized food grains to eligible families merely because they did not have an Aadhaar number, or had not linked their ration cards to it. However, reports of denied benefits continue.
Children without Aadhaar cards are at risk of being denied free meals in government schools, while others have been denied enrollment in government schools despite the Right to Education Act guaranteeing free and compulsory education to all children ages 6 to 14. Students are also increasingly finding it difficult to receive government scholarships without Aadhaar numbers. Hospitals in Haryana state insist on newborn babies being enrolled in Aadhaar before giving them birth certificates. Aadhaar numbers are also demanded to issue death certificates. In some cases, people living with HIV/AIDS have decided to stop getting medical treatment or medicines when forced to submit Aadhaar numbers to get healthcare benefits because they fear their identities will be disclosed. Many persons with disabilities have been denied benefits because they were unable to obtain Aadhaar numbers.
The government’s expansion of the Aadhaar project and efforts to make it mandatory for essential services directly violate Supreme Court orders. In August 2015, the Supreme Court, in an interim order, said that Aadhaar enrollment was “not mandatory” and should not be a condition to obtain any benefits otherwise due to a citizen, and also restricted its use to a few government programs. A five-judge bench will start hearing the final arguments on the legality of Aadhaar on January 17.
Right to Privacy
In August 2017, the Supreme Court stated that the right to privacy was part of the constitutional right to life and personal liberty, in response to government arguments in Aadhaar-related petitions that privacy was not a fundamental right. The right to privacy is also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which India is a party.
Several reports have shown that the Aadhaar system is vulnerable to data breaches and leaks. In January 2018, the Tribune newspaper reported that unrestricted access to the personal details of people enrolled in Aadhaar could be purchased for less than US$10 from racketeers. The UIDAI responded by filing a criminal complaint, naming the reporter and the newspaper, prompting widespread condemnation by civil society groups.
In 2017, millions of Aadhaar numbers, along with people’s personal information, including bank accounts, were published by government websites. The government has repeatedly dismissed reports of such leaks saying “mere display of demographic information cannot be misused without biometrics,” emphasizing that biometric information is safe. However, experts say companies could store biometric data at the time of enrollment or authentication for a transaction, and biometric data once stolen is compromised forever.
These fears proved real in February 2017, when UIDAI filed a criminal complaint against three companies alleging illegal transactions using stored biometric data. However, a month later, the UIDAI sought to downplay the breach and when an entrepreneur wrote an article illustrating how stored biometric information under Aadhaar could be misused, UIDAI filed a criminal complaint against him.
Following the Tribune story in January 2018, the government said it would address concerns about privacy rights violations by introducing temporary “virtual IDs” for Aadhaar holders to use in certain situations without revealing their Aadhaar numbers. However, the strategy does not effectively address data protection concerns.
The government claims to have issued 1.1 billion Aadhaar numbers to residents in India, not limited to citizens, making it one of the biggest biometric databases in the world. The government’s push for mandatory enrollment and its efforts to link the Aadhaar number to a wide range of services raises grave concerns that it could disproportionately interfere with the right to privacy for millions of people. It has also prompted fears of increased state surveillance, with the convergence of various databases making it easier for the government to track all information about specific individuals, and to target dissent. These fears are heightened by the absence of laws to protect privacy and data protection in India, and the lack of adequate judicial or parliamentary oversight over the activities of intelligence agencies.
Transparency and Accountability
Certain provisions of the Aadhaar Act and subsequent regulations also raise concerns regarding transparency and accountability. The law prevents anyone other than the UIDAI from approaching the courts in case of a breach or violation of the law. It also fails to set up an adequate or effective grievance redressal system. The ICCPR requires countries to ensure that anyone whose rights or freedoms are violated has an effective remedy.
Aadhaar regulations allow the government to deactivate an Aadhaar number for various reasons including for “any other case requiring deactivation as deemed appropriate” by the UIDAI, leaving the broad wording open to misuse. Also, the government is not required to give any prior notice before deactivating an Aadhaar number, which could violate natural justice principles and also put access to essential services at risk. Between 2010 and 2016, the government deactivated 8.5 million Aadhaar numbers, saying it was for reasons provided for under the law.
Aadhaar does not allow anyone enrolled under it to opt out or withdraw. Aadhaar regulations do not require the authorities to inform an Aadhaar number holder if their information has been shared or used without their knowledge or consent.
“It is ironic that a 12-digit number aimed to end corruption and help the poor has become the very reason many have been deprived of fundamental rights,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There are legitimate concerns about privacy, surveillance, or just misuse of personal information, and the government should address these problems instead of coercing people to enroll and link existing services to Aadhaar.”
Published on HRW on January 13, 2018
By Mark Townsend
Calls are mounting for the two British fighters captured in Syria to be sent back to the UK to face trial, with a former counter-terrorism regulator describing it as the “proper forum” for justice.
Lord Carlile, who was the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism laws between 2001 and 2011, intervened as the debate intensified over what happens next to the pair of Islamic State fighters being held by Syrian Kurdish forces.
The fighters, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, are the remaining members of “the Beatles”, the British Isis cell that the US State Department has said beheaded a number of western hostages.
Insisting that British courts should deal with radicalised Britons, Carlile said: “They should be returned to their country of origin, where their case should be considered in a normal way with British rights, British duties, British obligations and British responsibilities.”
Granting a fair trial in Britain would, said Carlile, also contribute to domestic deradicalisation. “If people are tried properly, as they would be in the British courts, it would show that the UK is taking a very serious approach to deradicalisation but also to dealing with extremism.”
Carlile also urged that the two fighters should not be sent to Guantánamo Bay, the notorious US prison in Cuba, and said that he hoped the UK government was making sure that this did not happen.
The Liberal Democrat peer and former MP added: “I am totally opposed to anybody being sent to Guantánamo Bay for anything. I would expect the foreign secretary [Boris Johnson] to urge the Americans and the Syrians to accept that British justice is a compliant and efficient system and that the most convenient forum and indeed the proper forum for such cases is the home country.”
His comments echo those of Nicolas Hénin, a French journalist and former Isis captive, who has warned that any attempt to deny the men their civil rights would only help radicalise potential Isis recruits.
Some, including the defence minister, Tobias Ellwood, have argued that Kotey and Elsheikh should be tried at the international criminal court in The Hague, which can prosecute people for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
There is still no confirmation from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces – who are holding the two Britons in the north of the country – that they have received a request from any foreign government to hand over the pair. The Home Office on Saturday said it would not comment on whether it would be seeking the pair’s extradition to stand trial in the UK, where both men have family.
Complicating the issue is that the British government has stripped Kotey and Elsheikh of their citizenship to keep them from re-entering the country, effectively making them stateless, although Carlile believes that their “country of origin” should apply in such cases.
Kotey, a father of two from west London, and Elsheikh, a former fairground mechanic, also from west London, were seized last month. They are understood to have been interrogated by the CIA and possibly MI5 and MI6. Officials are seeking information including the whereabouts of the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and John Cantlie, a British journalist held by Isis since 2012.
Meanwhile Amer Deghayes, a 23-year-old anti-Assad fighter from Brighton, who is situated in north-east Syria, has described how Isis fighters have apparently evaded capture by US-backed forces in the east of the country and are starting to move into Idlib, the last rebel-held province.
Deghayes, whose militia have been fighting Isis as well as pro-regime forces, said that Isis sleeper cells had begun attempting to penetrate rebel territory, with one leader caught after planting roadside explosives near the town of al-Tamanah, south Idlib.
He also described how an influx of refugees was putting pressure on resources in the north-east of the country. Anti-aircraft defences were needed, he said, to protect hospitals targeted by Russian and Syrian warplanes over the past week.
“All hospitals are under threat, if they have not been put out of service. That is a major issue because there’s a very fierce bombardment of civilians,” said Deghayes.
Published on The Guardian on February 10, 2018
By Lea Labaki
Last week, France delivered some good news on the human rights and equality front: All people with disabilities are to be granted the right to vote.
Currently Article 5 of France’s Electoral Code allows a judge to deprive people who have been assigned a guardian to make decisions on their behalf of the right to vote. Most of the time this impacts persons with a disability. However State Secretary for Persons with Disabilities, Sophie Cluzel, has declared she wants people with disabilities under guardianship to have the right to vote.
“Our French legislation cannot on the one hand assert that people with disabilities are citizens like any other, and on the other hand take away from them the most emblematic attribute of citizenship,” she said.
Already in January 2017, the French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights called for repeal of Article 5 of the Electoral Code. This was also a recommendation of United Nations expert on the rights of people with disabilities. The UN disability rights treaty, ratified by France and more than 170 other countries, recognizes that people with disabilities have the right to make decisions for themselves just like anyone else. To this end countries should not deprive or limit a person of legal capacity on the basis of disability, including by placing them under guardianship.
Yet, few countries allow unrestricted political participation by people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities. In Peru, after continued pressure from national disabled peoples' organizations, officials admitted that some 20,000 people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities had been excluded from the voter registry. In 2011, policies excluding people with certain disabilities from the electoral rolls were nullified. In Europe, civil society successfully mobilized against guidelines from the Council of Europe that permitted people with disabilities to be deprived from exercising their right to vote if they were deemed to lack “proper judgement”. But there is no competency test for voting, except when it comes people with disabilities.
In spite of France’s international obligation to recognize people with disabilities’ legal capacity, guardianship is still widely applied: according to the UN expert, some 385,000 people were under guardianship in 2015. Seventeen percent of them – roughly 65,000 people – were deprived of their right to vote. France should proceed promptly with the reform and become an example to help make universal suffrage truly universal.
Published on HRW on February 9, 2018
A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person's race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.
Source: Cornell University Law School