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Government developing UPI, Health ID like digital ecosystems for other sectors, but privacy concerns loom

The Centre’s plans to adopt these systems may increase the scope for data breaches, especially without a privacy law in place.

“It is very important for the government to put its weight behind the construction of healthy ecosystems,” IT Secretary Ajay Prakash Sawhney said at the Global Fintech Fest 2021 when answering a question on how the government sees data democratisation taking place.

Giving the UPI and the recently announced account aggregator system as examples of healthy ecosystems in the financial space, and the National Digital Health Mission as an example in the healthcare space, Sawhney said that the government is developing similar digital ecosystems across several sectors, including education, legal, agriculture, and logistics.

Does this mean more unique IDs?

“In health care, people using their health ID and their personal health record will be able to take advantage of a connected, pan-India health ecosystem where all the hospitals and health service provider facilities are registered, all the doctors and professionals are registered,” Sawhney said. “Similar system is coming in place in education where it has started with Diksha. Similar thing is happening in agriculture. A similar thing is likely to happen in logistics. Something very similar is taking place in bringing the justice system and joining it up with the policing or CCTNS kind of systems and forensics and prisons and prosecution so that an interoperable criminal justice system takes shape.”

While Sawhney uses Health ID as an example to illustrate his point, it is unclear if all the proposed ecosystems will also require the issuance of such unique identification numbers. For example, Diksha is an initiative of the Ministry of Education that focuses on equipping teachers with advanced digital technology and does not involve issuing unique identification numbers. Neither does UPI. However, connecting the justice system with policing and CCTNS will probably require some sort of unique number tying records of a particular individual together.

This raises an important question: do we need more unique IDs than we already have?

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Various states across the nation are already tying digital records of their citizens using unique identifiers. Tamil Nadu, for example, uses Makkal Number (people’s number), a unique number that has already been allotted to nearly 7 crore citizens of the state and is used by the government for consolidating records in the backend.

What are some concerns digital ecosystems pose?

Lack of data protection or privacy law: Regardless of whether or not new unique IDs will be issued, the lack of a data protection law poses serious privacy concerns as to how the proposed digital ecosystems will evolve because there are no clear guidelines on what and how data can be collected, used, shared, and stored.

Exacerbating the digital divide: Digital programs have also been criticised for exacerbating the digital divide problem in the country. People without Aadhaar, for example, have been denied basic welfare services in many parts of the country despite the country’s highest court disallowing such practices.

Scope for breach of privacy: Over 6 crore Makkal Numbers from Tamil Nadu were recently exposed in a massive data breach bringing into question the privacy implications of such unique identification numbers. These identifiers not only make it easier for the government to tie together records but also makes it easier for hackers to do the same.

Will they pass the Puttaswamy test? Some of the initiatives proposed by the government might not pass the triple test laid down by the Supreme Court in the landmark privacy judgment: legality or the existence of a law, legitimate state aim, and proportionality or a rational nexus between the objects and the means adopted to achieve them. The last test, where the government has to prove that the same objectives cannot be achieved with less intrusive means, poses the biggest challenge.

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Issuing IDs without proper informed consent: The government has come under criticism for issuing Health IDs through Aadhaar-enabled vaccine registrations without proper informed consent. It has been reported that individuals falsely believed that Aadhaar is mandatory for authentication through CoWIN and thus, unknowingly signed up for Health IDs. Similar issues are likely to stem from other unique IDs, especially with the lack of a data protection law.

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