On Feb. 15, Mukesh Ambani sat on stage at a leadership summit in Mumbai and declared: “To my mind, data is the new natural resource.”
“Data in its raw form is useful, but for it to have real value, it has to be processed into intelligence,” added Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries and India’s richest man. “And we are really at the beginning of that era where data is really the new oil.”
A few minutes on, the billionaire revealed that his new 4G mobile service, Reliance Jio, had acquired 100 million subscribers since its launch in September 2016. Such prolific growth had been supported, in part, by Jio’s use of online authentication based on Aadhaar, India’s 12-digit unique identification number. “Aadhaar enabled us to acquire a million customers a day,” Ambani said, “which is unheard of in the industry as a whole.”
Five months later, in July, the personal data of over 100 million Jio customers purportedly appeared on a website. The company steadfastly denied the veracity of the leaked data, though it eventually filed a police complaint alleging “unlawful access to its systems.”
For years, critics of Aadhaar had been warning of such a nightmare scenario. They had argued that the relentless expansion of the biometric-based ID platform, and its linking with other databases, could lead to damaging data breaches. Before the Jio episode, for instance, a stream of government websites had been leaking Aadhaar data.
But much before it had even got to this point, a retired judge of the Karnataka high court had challenged the Aadhaar project. In 2012, KS Puttaswamy, now a frail but sharp nonagenarian, petitioned the supreme court of India that Aadhaar violates an individual’s right to privacy. As concerns over the programme mounted, nearly two dozen other petitions, all countering Aadhaar on various grounds, became attached with Puttaswamy’s original challenge.
In its defence, the Narendra Modi government’s stand was simple: There is no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian constitution.
On Aug. 24, a nine-judge bench of the supreme court admonished that retort, unanimously asserting that privacy is, indeed, a fundamental right, protected as an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty by the constitution. The ruling pulled the rug from under the feet of a government that was furiously expanding Aadhaar, and emboldened a motley group of campaigners fighting for a long time to put a leash on the biometric project.
“This is the second-most important ruling in Indian constitutional history after Kesavananda Bharati (vs. state of Kerala),” said supreme court senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, referring to the 1973 judgement on the power of parliament to amend the Indian constitution. “This (verdict) is far-reaching.”
However, the fate of Aadhaar itself is yet to be decided, by another bench, at another time.