In 2009, with little attention from abroad, the government of India launched a new identification program that has gone on to become the largest biometric database in the world. The program, known as Aadhaar, has collected the names, addresses, phone numbers—and perhaps more significantly, fingerprints, photographs, and iris scans—of more than 1 billion people. In the process, Aadhaar has taken on a role in virtually all parts of day-to-day life in India, from schools to hospitals to banks, and has opened up pathways to a kind of large-scale data collection that has never existed before.
The Indian government views Aadhaar as a key solution for a myriad number of societal challenges, but critics see it as a step toward a surveillance state. Now, the Aadhaar experiment faces a significant threat from the Indian Supreme Court—one that may prove to be existential.
In late August, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that found, for the first time, a fundamental right to privacy in the Indian Constitution. The decision has been widely celebrated by Aadhaar’s opponents, who believe that the program is in conflict with the newly enshrined right. Soon, the Supreme Court will direct its attention to this very issue, and if they find that Aadhaar violates privacy rights, it will be up to lawmakers to rethink the entire program. But if the Supreme Court rules that the program is constitutional, then Aadhaar, already staggering in scope and ambition, will continue to grow.