Legal Challenges in Biometric Data Usage in India

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Biometric data usage in India has grown significantly in various sectors, from financial to healthcare to governance. In layman’s language, the term biometrics is defined as the automated recognition of individuals based on distinctive physical traits usually for security purposes. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Biometrics is defined as “the measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics (such as fingerprint or voice patterns), especially as a means of verifying personal identity.” In the legal realm, the Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules, 2011, defines biometrics under Rule 2(b) as “Biometrics means the technologies that measure and analyze human body characteristics, such as ‘fingerprints’, ‘eye retinas and irises, ‘voice patterns’, ‘facial patterns’, ‘hand measurements’ and ‘DNA’ for authentication purposes.” With the fast movements in biometric technologies, strong legal steps taken towards greater care to protect the privacy rights and data of the citizens were found quite inevitable. In the case of Aadhaar, India's biometric verification system, stirred many legal debates that quite intricately reflected the need for strong legal frameworks on the use of this sort of data. In this article, we will understand biometric data and explore legal challenges in biometric data usage in India.

Understand Biometric Data and Its Usage

Biometric data is information that deals with the unique physiological or behavioral features of an entity used for identification or authentication purposes. Biometric data, as of Clause 3(7) of the Personal Data Protection Bill, means “facial images, fingerprints, iris scans, or any other similar personal data resulting from measurements or technical processing operations carried out on physical, physiological, or behavioral characteristics of a data principal, which allow or confirm the unique identification of that natural person.” Biometric systems in India have not only been implemented by the government in services but also spread across banking, healthcare, and law enforcement. 

To broadly categorize, biometrics are divided into 3 groups, Biological biometrics (including features such as DNA or blood), Morphological biometrics (including characteristics such as an eye, face shape, or fingerprints), and Behavioral biometrics (focused on patterns that specify an individuals such as how one walk, talk, or any other physical activity).

How Biometric Systems Work in India

The biometric systems serve different purposes:

  • Authentication mechanisms: Biometric data authenticates people to access facilities or services, such as fingerprints that unlock smartphones or authenticate transactions at ATMs.
  • Surveillance technologies: Biometric data strengthens various security solutions within their surveillance systems. This is often observed in facial recognition in public places or at airports to identify probable dangers or trace some persons of interest.

Presently, several legal regulations including privacy regulations already provide for control over the collection, storage, and sharing of biometric data in India. The ‘Aadhaar Act’ and the ‘Information Technology Act, 2000’ are two significant legislations related to the use of biometric data. The latter one particularly deals with India's biometric identification system, Aadhaar; litigation is going on in many fields. In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar scheme stating that the ‘Aadhar Act’ does not violate an individual’s ‘Right to Privacy’ when he/she agrees to share biometric data. 

These legal provisions help protect the people's privacy rights and protect data. They constitute guidelines on consent-seeking, limitations to sharing data, and penalties in case there is non-compliance. Still, with the continuous advancement of technology and subsequent new challenges, these provisions need continuous re-evaluation to deal with emerging concerns. Grasping the various kinds of biometric data and the plethora of applications in India alone puts into perspective the necessity of having laws in place to safeguard the privacy rights of individuals. In the next section, we delve into the details of the problem of privacy with respect to the use of biometric data and examine just how far existing laws are sufficient to take on such problems.

Privacy Problems with Biometric Data Use

Biometric data usage has special data privacy challenges. This is because it is personal information that can be used directly against the subject whose right needs to be secured. There are some issues regarding biometric systems, including:

  • Unauthorized Secondary Use: A large risk associated with biometric data lies in the possibility of unauthorized secondary use or disclosure. Biometric data may be collected for one purpose but then used for another that was not intended, which may cause privacy breaches and harm to individuals. For example, if a person's fingerprint data has been collected for authentication, it could be misused for any other undesirable purposes like identity theft or illegal surveillance.
  • Covert Collection Without Consent: Another privacy concern arises from private collection techniques within public spaces. Unbeknownst to the affected person, capturing them through cameras or face recognizers can be very detrimental to their right to privacy. This gives rise to concerns about consent, transparency, and the right of control over personal data.

To effectively address these data privacy challenges, there is a need to assess the status quo of laws and regulations for processing biometric data in India. While there currently exist certain legal regimes, such as the Aadhaar Act and Information Technology Act, that have some provisions safeguarding this information, how effective they truly are in fighting certain types of privacy concerns with respect to biometric data.

It should, therefore, be lucid in the runway of the law that any unauthorized secondary use of biometric data is strictly forbidden and stringent measures are in place against surreptitious collection practices. This should be further supported by comprehensive guidelines on informed consent for the procurement of biometric information and its usage to guard privacy rights. In view of these unusual privacy challenges, India has to strike a balance between harnessing the benefits of biometric technology and ensuring that individuals' existing rights to privacy are digitally safeguarded.

Legal Frameworks for Biometric Data Protection

The statutory regimes regulating biometric data protection in India comprise various data protection laws and regulatory bodies. The Personal Data Protection Bill plays a very integral role in providing an inclusive legal framework meant to protect persons' biometric information. This is a Bill spelling out provisions that regulate the collection, storage, and use of personal data, including biometric identifiers. Respectfully, it seeks to guarantee the processing of biometric information to be lawful, fair, and transparent; hence, giving better protection of privacy rights in cyberspace.

The Data Protection Authority (DPA) comes in as a core and prime monitoring and enforcement regulatory authority on issues relating to the protection of biometric data. Such an authority is set up to keep surveillance on legality with respect to processing biometric information and have actions taken in case such provisions are violated or breached. Moreover, landmark judgments have played a leading role in the interpretation of relevant legislation in safeguards against exploitation of biometric data in India. These judicial decisions have gone on to outline the contours and consequences of resorting to biometric data and laid down important benchmarks for its use in the lawful and ethical exercises.

The Aadhaar legal issues also had the greatest impact on the legal regime governing the use of biometric data in India. Lessons learned from the debates, most especially the litigations which ensued over Aadhaar, have been very instrumental in shedding light on the intricacies of regulating biometric information and so, contributed to the continuing discourse on privacy rights and data protection in India.

Protecting the Privacy Rights on the Use of Biometric Data

Biometric data is sensitive information; therefore, handling them requires protective measures for the individual's right to privacy and safety.

  • Informed Consent: This should be obtained whenever biometric data is to be processed. However, meaningful consent may be difficult to achieve in practice since most biometric systems are complex and not familiar to many people.
  • Benefits against Privacy: In doing so, it places a benefit that biometric authentication can provide against the preservation of individuals' rights to privacy and bodily integrity. This guarantees proportionality and respect for each individual's private rights whenever biometric data is collected and used.
  • Security Measures: Security measures, such as encryption and access controls, will enable organizations to compete with the security risks associated with storing biometric identifiers. This basically implies that once the storage and transmission of such data are secured, the chances of unauthorized access or misapplication are reduced.

Ensuring that privacy rights in using biometric data, like informed consent, respect for the rights of every person, and robust security measures, will need a multifaceted approach.

Security Measures on Biometric Data Handling

Security measures are very important in ensuring the protection of biometric data against unauthorized disclosure. The following are key considerations:

  • Strong Security Measures should always be instituted on biometric data. They include:
    • Data transmission and storage are in forms that are secure enough to avoid access by unauthorized persons. 
    • Protocols are quickly instituted in reaction to probable breaches in security or incidents involving personal data.
  • Understanding the Role of Facial Recognition Technology: Facial recognition technology is an upcoming tool to be of assistance in enhancing security and privacy in biometric systems. An algorithm works in the following manner:
    • Authentication: Facial recognition algorithms can be implemented to authenticate any individual, therefore hardening access from any imposter.
    • Privacy Features: Such technologies further incorporate liveness detection, which checks for the presence of a person physically, and anti-spoofing measures to avoid fake images and videos.
  • If your organization works with data related to biometric information, ensure that you are abiding by the international standards on cybersecurity. This is necessary to make sure that you are putting in efforts toward taking care of people's data and programming your actions to deal with biometrics responsibly.

It is through the application of these security measures that organizations can be freed of the risks associated with handling biometric data and facilitate trust in their systems.

The Way Forward: Striking a Balance between Innovation and Legal Safeguards

The future holds some challenges for regulating the usage of biometric data in view of evolving biometric technology in India. They are as follows:

Deepfake Technology: Deepfakes present a very dangerous dimension of threat to the integrity of biometric authentication systems. These are manipulated videos or images that can be utilized in an effort to trick biometric systems into recognizing fake identities. This poses serious threats to the security of biometric data regarding the aspect of accuracy. In this regard, regulators and policymakers should always be one step ahead in developing robust mechanisms for detecting and preventing deep-fake attacks.

Ethical Considerations: As biometric data become the rule rather than the exception, it behoves us to put in place ethical considerations for their use. Algorithmic bias is a big issue, in that biased algorithms engender discriminatory effects within facial recognition or predictive policing. A value proposition of inclusivity should ensure no biases in biometric systems at the design and deployment levels. In this regard, inclusivity based on cultural diversity to accessibility requirements needs to be accounted for in all levels of these systems.

Looking ahead to the challenges in the future, proactive measures are required towards the following aspects:

  • Research and Development: Constant research and development is required to be kept updated with emerging technology and threats. This would foster innovation while ensuring the legality of academic-industry expert synergy with regulatory bodies. 
  • Public Awareness: The benefits and risks associated with the use of biometric data should be disseminated to the public. Increased awareness would allow people to make an informed decision every time they were called upon to divulge their biometric information and would empower them to exercise the invokes of privacy rights effectively.
  • Collaboration of Stakeholders: Effective legal frameworks that strike a delicate balance between innovation and putting in appropriate legislation will require multi-stakeholder collaboration between governments, the private sector, and privacy advocates, among other civic groups. To this end, collaboration of all stakeholders can help in addressing the complex challenges associated with the use of biometric data holistically.

By considering such future challenges and taking ethical concerns into consideration at the time of developing and deploying any biometric system, India will have done its part in ensuring responsible innovation in the sphere of biometrics with respect to the rights to privacy of the individual citizen and retaining public trust.

Related Case Law


The legal challenges associated with the use of biometric data in India raise an acute need for sober legal frameworks for safeguarding individuals' rights to privacy. The challenge is how to effectively meet these challenges as biometric technology advances and finds its place in a variety of sectors. If India is capable of walking the tightrope of navigating this legal minefield, then it would appropriately ensure maximizing the gains flowing from biometric data while remaining committed to the protection of privacy and enhancing data protection standards. It is this delicate balance that will finally determine the future for using biometric data in India, leading in innovation and establishing trust in the digital environment.

In this case, balance can be struck by the implementation of robust regulation strategies in India, including data protection, consent, and transparency. This should spell out clear guidelines with respect to the collection, storage, and sharing of biometric data. Further, an authority can be built that ensures adherence and tackles breaches or misapplications of this sensitive information. By this step, India creates a strong foundation on the responsible use of biometric data, ensuring that the privacy rights of individuals are not affected badly while still not hindering technological development. 

1. What is biometrics?
2. What is the major disadvantage of using biometrics?