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Alphons Kannanthanam: India minister's 'naked' visa claim criticised

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Alphons Kannanthanam said Indians have no problem “getting naked” for a US visa, but complain about Aadhaar

An Indian minister has sparked a social media storm with his comments on the country’s controversial biometric identity scheme.

Alphons Kannanthanam said Indians had no problem “getting naked” for a US visa, but object to the Aadhaar scheme over privacy concerns.

It is not clear what he meant exactly but he may be referring to airport strip searches.

Since Aadhar’s inception, critics have been worried about its data safety.

In January, an Indian journalist said she was able to access citizens’ personal details on the Aadhaar website after paying an agent 500 rupees ($8; £6). The government called it a data breach at the time.

More than a billion Indians have enrolled in Aadhaar and have received a 12-digit unique identification number after submitting biometric data.

It started out as a voluntary programme to tackle benefit fraud, but the ID number has become increasingly necessary for financial transactions and social welfare.

Mr Kannanthanam, the minister of tourism, electronics and information technology, criticised Indians who have resisted giving their data to the government.

“We [Indians] have absolutely no problems going and putting our fingerprints and the iris and getting your whole body naked before the white man at all,” he said.

“But when the government of India, which is your government, asks you your name and your address, nothing more, there’s a massive revolution in the country saying it’s an intrusion into the privacy of the individual.”

He added that the biometric data collected under the scheme was safe with the government.

The comment by the minister comes a week after the Indian Supreme Court extended its deadline on ruling whether Aadhaar needs to be mandatorily linked to avail various services, including welfare schemes, bank accounts and phone numbers.

Mr Kannanthanam added that he had to fill a 10-page form to apply for a US visa.

“Ten pages of data which you have never even confessed to your wife or husband ever, that is passed on to the white man. We have no problem,” he said.

However, many on social media were quick to point out the differences between the two scenarios he put forward:

India’s biometric database is the world’s largest. The government has collected fingerprints and iris scans from more than a billion residents – or nearly 90% of the population – and stored them in a high security data centre.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have a fundamental right to privacy in a landmark judgment. The ruling, experts said, had significant implications for the government’s vast biometric ID scheme.

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