Legal researcher and activist Dr Usha Ramanathan has been declared a “human rights hero” by the international rights group Access Now for her criticism of the Aadhaar programme. Ramanathan has been raising security and privacy risks associated with Aadhaar since the scheme was launched in 2009. Access Now said Dr Ramanathan was one of the “leading critics of Aadhaar” who has “tirelessly challenged” the controversial programme. While selecting her for the award, Access Now said it also wanted to recognise “the entire community that has protested and litigated against Aadhaar”. The award function will be held in Tunis between June 11 and 14, as a part of RightsCon, Access Now’s annual human rights and technology conference. The awards will be handed out by Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.

While announcing the award, Access Now said, “In September 2018, the Supreme Court in India ruled Aadhaar could not be mandatory for several purposes, and it could not be required by private companies. Afterward, Dr. Ramanathan worked to explain the ramifications of the judgment and its disappointing limitations. She continues to speak out against the Aadhaar program.” Access Now said the award is “in celebration of … the work of people around the globe to protect human rights in the digital age”. Every year, it names “heroes” and “villains” who have either protected the principles of freedom online, or worked to undermine them. The other winners for 2018 are Bahraini digital security trainer Mohammed al-Maskati, Australian lawyer Lizzie O’Shea, Tanzanian digital security activist Zaituni Njovu, and Venezuelan researcher Marianne Díaz Hernández.

Past winners of the award include the nine-judge Constitution bench of India’s Supreme Court, which ruled that privacy was a fundamental right in 2017. The organisation had recognised Justice Rohinton Nariman separately “for specifically citing to the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance in his opinion”.

Dr Ramanathan’s criticisms of Aadhaar

Dr Ramanathan has spoken out — presciently, as it turns out — about the dangers of a data breach, and of concerns about the buying and selling of personal data. “The story of Aadhaar is one of coercion, rampant illegality and outrageous contempt of Supreme Court orders through which the project has built its database,” she wrote in The Wire.

She has also written about how Aadhaar has morphed from a project to provide India’s poor with an identity, to a way of de-duplicating India’s population, to a way of ridding the country’s welfare systems of “ghosts” and “duplicates” to prevent “leakages”, and finally to a a means of enforcing the cashless economy. “From denial of entitlements if a person is not enrolled or does not seed their number, it has reached a point where not having a UID number will force you to commit an offence,” she had written in The Wire.

Read: On The Private Ownership of Aadhaar Data by Usha Ramanathan

Read: Who Owns The UID Database? by Usha Ramanathan