Telecom companies should stop asking subscribers to provide Aadhaar details
Citing a March 23, 2017, DoT order asking for “e-KYC verification of all subscribers”, telecom companies have been badgering subscribers to cough up their Aadhaar numbers if they want their phone services to continue. This insistence can be questioned on many grounds. First, it is bewildering that both the Government and the industry should be demanding Aadhaar data when the Supreme Court is yet to decide on whether Aadhaar can be made mandatory for purposes that go beyond the implementation of welfare schemes — the remit of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act 2016. Following a slew of petitions challenging the centrality of Aadhaar in numerous programmes, the Supreme Court, on Monday, decided to set up a three-member Constitution bench which will begin hearings later in November. Aadhaar has implicitly come under the scanner after the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in August, declaring privacy a fundamental right. Second, if our private details, including phone numbers, are already floating in the public domain without our consent, the telecom industry must take some of the blame. In this context, their demand for the Aadhaar number without any assurance that this will be protected, does not inspire confidence. Third, the Aadhaar Act does not provide for the biometric data to reside with any party other than the state. Therefore, if subscribers are to furnish their biometric details each time they change a SIM card, it will not only come in the way of consumer freedom but also compromise the security and privacy of such data. Fourth, if telecom companies merely want to establish the identity and residence of the subscriber, it is not clear why they should prefer Aadhaar over other identity documents.
In view of reports of Aadhaar-related scams, such as a pensioner’s funds being diverted in Hyderabad, it is time for the Centre to reconsider whether Aadhaar is really foolproof; this is even as Aadhaar’s uses in targeted delivery are undeniable. The replication of biometrics seems to be taking place already. Therefore, the customer must be given the option of furnishing the identity proof of her choice.
Even as the apex court is yet to take a call, the industry’s demand prima facie does not seem to sit well with the spirit of the privacy ruling, earlier rulings of the apex court on Aadhaar, and with the 2016 Aadhaar law. On October 15, 2015, the Supreme Court said that “the Aadhaar card scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other”. This point was reiterated in its June 7, 2017 ruling on a petition that questioned the mandatory use of Aadhaar for filing tax returns. Given this uncertainty, the DoT should revoke its order and wait for the court to decide on the status of Aadhaar.