Bill Gates defends India's Aadhar scheme, again

Bill Gates is a lot of things. He’s the founder of Microsoft, one of the world’s richest men and arguably, the world’s most generous philanthropist. He’s also an advocate of the world’s largest biometric identification programme, the Indian government’s Aadhar scheme. It currently has over 1.1 billion Indian citizens enrolled.

Gates has said that the scheme does not pose any privacy issues. In an additional vote of confidence, he has also provided funding for World Bank projects to replicate the scheme in other countries. Gates did, however stress, that the applications that use people’s Aadhar details need to be monitored effectively. “The individual applications that use Aadhaar, you have to look and see what's been stored and who has access to that information. And so, application by application, you have to make sure that's well managed”.

Gate’s remarks echo similar sentiments expressed in November 2017, when he said that he didn’t called Aadhar a “12-digit lie detector” and said that it didn’t intrude on people’s privacy by itself. It’s worth noting that he was also a big fan of the Indian government’s demonetisation move when it was launched, before changing tack the following month.

The Aadhar scheme has received a lot of backlash in recent years over security breaches, data leaks, its potential for mass surveillance and the fact that it requires the accumulation of several details of a person in a central database. There have also been fundamental concerns regarding the release of personal information to government agencies.

In response, the government has consistently downplayed these concerns and cited the scheme as a tool for empowerment and the distribution of benefits. In July last year, K.K. Venugopal, the Attorney General representing the central government, said that privacy could not be considered a fundamental right. The Supreme court disagreed, accordingly, stating the following month that privacy was “ intrinsic to the right to life”. Hence, in implementing of the scheme, the government will have to focus on ensuring the right to privacy.

The matter is still ongoing in the Supreme Court, and is said to be in its final stages. In the meantime, the linking of Aadhar details with mobile phones and provident fund accounts has been suspended, although the RBI still made it mandatory for opening a bank account, subject to the Supreme Court’s ruling.