India’s biometric programme is putting the identities of a billion people at risk

Quartz india
Quartz india

When Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani shepherded the Aadhaar programme into existence at the turn of the decade, the motivation was to ensure better delivery of subsidies and government schemes, and avoid duplicates from cashing in.

So far, over a billion Indians have enrolled for Aadhaar, India’s 12-digit biometric identity number.

Over time, telecom companies, banks, insurers, and other corporates also began using Aadhaar to verify identities, supposedly to prevent fraud. Under the Narendra Modi government’s watch, the platform has expanded from an authentication tool into a master database of sorts that is now being used to check the veracity of other databases. And as its implementation has widened in recent months, Aadhaar has now almost become something of a coercive instrument, with service providers compelling citizens to link their biometric information, while concerns persist over the vulnerability of data on the platform.

To top it off, whenever the holes in the platform are brought to light, the state-run Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has turned vindictive.

Shooting the messenger

On Jan. 03, Rachna Khaira, a journalist with The Tribune newspaper, published a report detailing how she paid just Rs500 ($7.84) to buy Aadhaar data from an anonymous seller over WhatsApp—something the UIDAI denied was a result of failed security.

Two days after the article was published, the UIDAI filed a first investigation report (FIR) not just against the people selling the data but also against Khaira herself. Although the agency denied it was “shooting the messenger,” critics are unconvinced.

Seven in 10 Indians don’t approve of the UIDAI’s move, a recent poll of 6,259 citizens by community-based social network LocalCircles showed. The Editors Guild of India, meanwhile, condemned it as an attack on the press.

“I thought those showing the faults in the system would be rewarded,” Usha Ramanathan, an independent law researcher, told Quartz. “(The UIDAI has) taken no responsibility for what is happening. Instead they are using the Aadhaar Act of 2016 to assert the authority to decide who should be charged with an offence. All that does is to silence those who find flaws in the system.”

To prevent future breaches, the UIDAI, on Jan. 09, revoked access for around 5,000 designated officials—both government and private operators—who were involved as intermediaries in the ecosystem. “This is at least the fourth time that UIDAI has gone after the whistleblower,” said Reetika Khera, a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, who has studied the impact of Aadhaar on welfare programmes.

In March 2017, a police complaint was filed against Sameer Kochhar, head of Gurgaon-based think-tank Skoch Development Foundation, for sharing a video demonstrating how unauthorised transactions were taking place via the replay of stored biometrics. Incidentally, this is the same malpractice for which authorities had halted Aadhaar-based transactions by Axis Bank and verification platforms such as Suvidha and eMudhra. In the same month, an FIR was filed against a CNN-News 18 journalist who conducted a sting operation to obtain two separate Aadhaar enrollment numbers with the same set of biometrics. Then, in May, when the Center for Internet Security (CIS) disclosed that 130 million Aadhaar details had been leaked, the UIDAI questioned it over possible hacking.

After legal notices were served on the CIS, the Twitter accounts of their researchers—once an active resource about all things Aadhaar—were “reduced to nothing for a while and is now down to a trickle,” Khera said. “The UIDAI has succeeded in creating a huge chilling effect.”

Holes in the system

Last April, during an interview with Quartz, Ajay Bhushan Pandey, the UIDAI chief executive officer, vehemently denied that any data breaches had occurred. The UIDAI claims its databases are fully secure.

Even so, that does not imply that the entire Aadhaar ecosystem is free of leaks. “I don’t think the potential risk of data leaks and data breaches, where personal data is provided, should be underestimated,” said Pranesh Prakash, the policy director at CIS, adding that Aadhaar-linked data bases are available with all state governments and numerous other people in the ecosystem.

As early as 2015, data were already being misused to scam bank customers. In April 2017, Aadhaar data of over a million pensioners were exposed due to a programming error on a website maintained by the Jharkhand Directorate of Social Security. “More personal information available in the public domain including phone numbers, addresses and date of birth…every additional piece makes it easier to engage in identity fraud,” Prakash explained.

However, Prakash emphasised that the issue extends beyond Aadhaar. “It’s a mistake to see this as a problem with UIDAI and its systems alone. There’s a much larger problem you’re facing in India,” he added. “Those who believe doing away with Aadhaar will fix data protection and surveillance are sorely mistaken.”

In November 2017, the Airtel Payments Bank came under the scanner for violating the Aadhaar Act by opening accounts without explicit consent while carrying out Aadhaar verification of customers’ mobile numbers. Over 2.3 million customers reportedly received as much as Rs47 crore ($7.4 million) in total in their Airtel bank accounts, which they were unaware even existed. The digital bank’s electronic know-your-customer (eKYC) licence was revoked and soon after, Shashi Arora, CEO of Airtel’s payment bank, put in his papers.

“People say we are being alarmist but actually it’s happening and this is just the beginning,” Khera said. “Instead of putting their foot on the brake, they’re pushing it down on the accelerator.” Public sentiment seems to reflect the alarm: more than half of 7,608 citizens surveyed by LocalCircles said they are concerned about the ability of government agencies to protect their Aadhaar details.

Forced voluntary programme

Alongside, India’s citizens are almost forcefully being ushered into the programme from all directions.

The Modi government is aggressively pushing for the introduction of Aadhaar into as many of services and systems as possible, finding legal covers “to ensure mandatory compliance of what started off as a voluntary programme,” Sanjay Hegde, a senior advocate at the supreme court of India, told Quartz. For instance, under the amendment to the money laundering Act, bank accounts with more than Rs50,000 in them must be linked to Aadhaar, Hegde explained. Further, the government made it mandatory to link mobile numbers to Aadhaar, based on NGO Lokniti Foundation’s findings that unverified SIM cards were being misused and posed a major threat to national security.

Earlier, taxpayers had until the end of 2017 to link Aadhaar with their permanent account numbers.

But in light of a slew of cases pending in the supreme court challenging this mandatory linking, the government extended the deadline to March 31, 2018. Mobile phone users and bank account holders, too, have until then to connect their Aadhaar numbers to these services.

“Even today, under the Aadhaar Act passed in parliament, participation is said to be voluntary but the voluntariness is like the Henry Ford argument that ‘you can have any colour as long as it’s black’,” Hegde said.

The push comes despite there being no transparent, conclusive proof of how much money the programme is really saving. Conversely, Aadhaar has created “a readily available single target for cyber criminals,” Reserve Bank of India (RBI) researchers said in an October 2017 paper, citing issues with the quality of authentication, unclear financial benefits, and security concerns.

Concerns about violating privacy are also rife because India does not have a privacy law on paper yet. The Srikrishna commission is working on a draft.

And there are many loopholes even in volunteering Aadhaar information: Technically, each database using Aadhaar is protected by a separate law, Aadhaar architect Nilekani told Quartz in April 2017. Banking data slots under the Banking Secrecy Act, while PAN data comes under the Income Tax Act, and so on, and laws exist to bar sharing across these databases. That, however, doesn’t mean that cross-linking is absent. “Of course it’s happening, and it’s happening mindlessly. Every two-penny bureaucrat in charge of any programme is asking for Aadhaar,” said Hegde.

The UIDAI didn’t revert to Quartz about the perceived coercion and security concerns at the time of publishing.

Now all eyes are on the courts. A five-judge constitution bench of the supreme court, led by chief justice Dipak Misra, will conduct the final hearings on the validity of the Aadhaar scheme, challenged in 24 separate petitions, beginning on Jan. 17. These petitions flag concerns around mass surveillance. One filed by Kalyani Menon Sen, a women’s rights activist, opposes the linking of Aadhaar with mobile numbers on grounds of violating privacy. In another petition, bank employees have complained that they don’t have the bandwidth to offer Aadhaar services.

Until then, what was supposed to be showpiece technology achievement of world’s largest democracy remains a risk.

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