On February 18, senior officials of the Election Commission of India (EC) discussed the possibility of linking electoral photo identity card (EPIC) with Aadhaar with the Legislative Department of Ministry of Law and Justice. The Election Commission had written to the Law Ministry on August 13, 2019, recommending the same.

Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora and Election Commissioners Ashok Lavasa and Sunshil Chandra met Secretary of the Department Narayan Raju and Additional Secretary Rita Vashishth. Other officials were also present at the meeting.

The Election Commission had begun linking Aadhaar and voter IDs in March 2015 under its National Electoral Roll Purification and Authentication Programme (NERPAP). On the basis of the interim order passed by the Supreme Court in the Aadhaar case in August 2015, the EC suspended all activities, including publicity, related to collection of Aadhaar data, from citizens and government agencies. Since then, the Aadhaar Act has been amended so that to make Aadhaar mandatory to avail certain services, a law stating that will have to be passed by the Parliament.

MediaNama spoke to a senior official at the EC, who was present at the meeting, to understand the reasons for such linkage, and how citizens’ privacy will be ensured despite it.

Please note that the quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

MediaNama: How will Aadhaar-EPIC linkage help?
Senior EC Official:
“There’s a two-fold purpose to it: first is related to any kind of duplicity [duplication] to be avoided in electoral roll because people move from one place to another. Second is to look for the possibility of developing some kind of voting outside their constituency for migrant population. This depends on the kind of technology which is yet to be explored. We already have the Electronically Transmitted Postal Ballot System. The technology can be experimented [with] and worked upon.”

They also added, “When you move out, you don’t share your earlier voter ID details. So footprints of voters are left behind in different places. With Aadhaar, that won’t be an issue. When people give this unique identifier at a new place, we will be immediately able to get their details.”

MediaNama: What happens to privacy in this situation?
Senior EC Official:
“Those things [privacy concerns] are the first things to be checked. We had meeting with UIDAI and others to discuss that. Cybersecurity is a huge concern.

“You may have heard about the Data Protection Bill. All these things [Personal Data Protection Bill] are taken into account. Privacy is very important and integral to the process. We are very, very committed to safeguarding privacy and preventing profiling.

MediaNama: When did the meeting with UIDAI take place?
Senior EC Official:
“We met UIDAI before we proposed EPIC-voter card linkage in August 2019. It is only after meeting UIDAI we made our recommendations to the Law Ministry.”

MediaNama: How will you ensure privacy given that Aadhaar data and its database, CIDR, have been frequently compromised and leaked?
Senior EC Official:
“Sharing of databases is not on the table. This will be completely sanitised.”

MediaNama: What does that mean?
Senior EC Official: “
We have our own database and cybersecurity standards. We are not going to share out database with any outside agency. We have a safety valve situation. For any interaction between two databases, our technical experts will maintain air gaps between the databases. EC will not get access to Aadhaar database and UIDAI will not get access to EC database.”

MediaNama: How will linking happen then?
Senior EC Official:
“We [EC] will create a platform for this.”

MediaNama: Electoral rolls are made public. Will they have people’s Aadhaar numbers as well?
Senior EC Official:
“Aadhaar numbers will not be made public.”

MediaNama: Will this linkage be made mandatory?
Senior EC Official: “No, it is not mandatory. If they prescribe it in the law that it will be mandatory, then it will be mandatory.”

MediaNama: Does the Election Commission want it to be mandatory?
Senior EC Official: “
At present, the next stage of act making is with the Parliament. At present, our recommendation is about ‘may’, not ‘shall’.”

MediaNama: Reading between the lines, does it then mean that the EC wants it to be voluntary, not mandatory?
Senior EC Official: “Yes.”

MediaNama: A Times of India report, quoting EC sources, says that the government is “favourably inclined” towards the linkage, and “a Cabinet note would be moved soon to amend the Aadhaar Act”. Is that the case?
Senior EC Official: “We are not privy to that information.”