In January 2018, a local paper in the western Indian state of Punjab, The Tribune, published an article revealing that the private details of millions of Indians – gathered under the Aadhaar scheme – could be bought, cheap.
Aadhaar, a nationwide identity programme that is run by the Indian government, is the world’s largest biometric identification system. The programme is the keystone in an ambitious plan to digitise India’s economy and to make the distribution of state welfare more efficient.
It took over a decade to design and roll out, and more than 1.2 billion Indians have already signed up to it. But it’s been dogged by legal challenges and questions over privacy.
Aadhaar is more dangerous [than Facebook], because it’s essentially a disproportionate amount of data in the hands of the state. They’re connecting things like traffic violations, property records, and land holding size, religion and caste, which is data which should not be linked to and collected and used by the state.
Despite news reports raising legitimate questions about data privacy and identity theft, the government body in charge of it, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), insists that Aadhaar is secure.
Just days after The Tribune correspondent Rachna Khaira’s data breach report was published, UIDAI filed a police complaint against her.
“I have been accused of hatching a conspiracy, I have been charged under Section 419, 420, 468, and 471, that pertains to cheating, impersonation, dishonesty, forgery, Section 36 and 37 of the Aadhaar Act, that is having unauthorised access to the database I have been accused, and now I am on the fugitive list of the Delhi Police,” says Rachna Khaira.
“All I wanted was to highlight these concerns. I am depressed to see how officials instead of, paying concerns to the issues which I have raised in my story – they have made me a story,” Khaira says.
The UIDAI’s official line on data security has been that the reporting is inaccurate, overblown and misleading. However, many journalists say that dealing with the UIDAI is problematic, that officials there are elusive and often unavailable for comment.
“I would say that Aadhaar is more dangerous [than Facebook], because it’s essentially a disproportionate amount of data in the hands of the state,” explains Nikhil Pahwa, founding and editor of Medianama. “They’re connecting things like traffic violations, property records, and land-holding size, religion and caste, which is data which should not be linked to and collected and used by the state. So, I think the risks are substantially greater in terms of misuse of this data.”
But Zoheb Hossain, the lawyer representing UIDAI, says, “I think the two domains are extremely different and disparate. Facebook has far more personally sensitive information about you and me than Aadhaar. Aadhaar has very little information about you. Aadhaar is only a tool to match your identity and say that ‘yes, you are who you claim to be.'”
Journalists covering the Aadhaar story are having to tread carefully. Two months after that Tribune report was published, the editor of the paper resigned. He gave no reason, but sources at the paper said the pressure on him after the Aadhaar expose was huge.
Rachna Khaira, reporter, The Tribune
Zoheb Hossain, lawyer for UIDAI
Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor, MediaNama
Srinivas Kodali, cybersecurity specialist
Source: Al Jazeera News