No longer a black box: Why does the revised Aadhaar Bill allow sharing of identity information?

A seemingly minor amendment to the 2016 bill that could have significant privacy ramifications has not been received adequate debate.

The hacking of a Turkish government database containing close to 50 million personal records of the country’s citizens is yet another reminder of the vulnerability of electronic databases. The entire population of Turkey, is estimated at 77.69 million people. This is the second major database to be hacked in recent times, the first being a data breach in the United States government which affected 21 million federal government employees.

These massive data breaches come on the heels of a national debate in India on the various aspects of the Aadhaar project that was recently approved by Parliament when it enacted The Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefit & Services) Bill, 2016. One aspect which hasn’t been debated substantially is a seemingly minor amendment to Clause 8(4) of the Bill, which can have significant privacy ramifications. To understand this amendment it is first necessary to narrate the early assurances provided by the Unique Identification Authority of India and its Chairperson, Nandan Nilekani.

Just Yes or No

As originally conceived, the Aadhaar number was to be generated after collection of relevant demographic information (such as address, age, date of birth) and biometric information (such as photographs, fingerprints and iris scans). The number generated were then to be used by either the government or a private entity to authenticate a person carrying out a transaction which required him or her to establish their identity. Prior to the introduction of the Aadhaar Bill in Parliament, the UIDAI had maintained that the authentication process would generate only a “yes” or a “no” in response to an authentication request, without actually sharing any of the personal identity information stored with the requesting authority.

This understanding can be confirmed in an explainer put out by the UIDAI. On the very second page, a neat explainer clarifies that Aadhaar authentication will “[r]eturn response to requesting agencies as Yes/No’ and will not “[r]eturn personal identity information of residents”.

This assurance was reiterated by Nandan Nilekani. In an interview to NDTV, responding to a question on whether the information collected would be shared, he had said:

“It is a black box. The purpose of this data is only in authentication. When you go somewhere to receive a service and you say I am Sreenivasan Jain, the system will reply it is him, or not him. That’s all it does. Only a yes or a no.”

Nilekani’s description gives the common man an impression that the Aadhaar project was designed in a manner that only allowed for personal information to be deposited in the Central Identities Data Repository without any mechanism to allow any person to extract such personal information. A crude analogy of a “blackbox”-style operation would be a vault in a bank that is constructed in a manner that it has a slot to allow people to deposit information in it but there is no way for any other person to open the vault and retrieve the information. In the case of the Aadhaar project, the information in question was only be used to authenticate a request from outside but would never itself leave the firewalls of the repository.

This guarantee was underwritten in Clause 5(2) of the National Identification Authority of India Bill, 2010 introduced by the United Progressive Alliance government which clarified:

“Authority shall respond to an authentication query with a positive or negative response or with any other appropriate response excluding any demographic information and biometric information.”

Thus any of the information collected by the Authority was not to be shared with the requester. This fact is further substantiated currently by the UIDAI website, which clearly states that during authentication “No personal identity information is returned as part of the response.”

The change

The Aadhaar Act, 2016 however completely alters this provision. Now renumbered as Section 8(4), it states:

“The Authority shall respond to an authentication query with a positive, negative or any other appropriate response sharing such identity information excluding any core biometric information”.

The difference between the different versions of this provision is that while the 2010 Bill states no identity information will be shared during the authentication process, the Aadhaar Act clearly gives the UIDAI the power to share identity information back with the requesting agency. The only information excluded from being shared is core biometric information such as fingerprints or iris scans.

Therefore, once you provide certain information to a requesting authority performing the authentication, the UIDAI while confirming the identity can legally share with the requesting authority the personal identity information of the person requesting authentication.

Contrary to common perception, the authentication process under the UIDAI does not mandatorily require a resident to submit either fingerprints or iris scans, which are the only unique identifiers. According to the UIDAI explainer referenced earlier, there are five types of authentication techniques – two of these types don’t require either fingerprints or iris scans for authentication. These two forms of authentication can take place in conjunction with either demographic information such as date of birth, name or address OR in conjunction with a one-time-password delivered to a mobile phone or email account associated with the Aadhaar number. Therefore, at least theoretically, it is possible for a “rogue” requesting authority to key in the Aadhaar number along with a name or date of birth to the UIDAI and in return get back more personal identity information such as the address or photograph.

Since demographic information isn’t conclusively defined in the Aadhaar Act and this function has been delegated to the UIDAI, it is not known just how much information will eventually be collected by the UIDAI.

Whether these nightmare scenarios actually play out, the fact remains that the “black box” system of operating which was considered a fundamental operating principle of the UIDAI has now been overturned.

The question at this stage is why exactly was this clause altered? The answer is not clear especially since the government has adopted blitzkrieg tactics to pass the Bill through Parliament.

Prashant Reddy Thikkavarapu studied law at the National Law School of India University, Bengaluru, and at Stanford Law School. He is a practising lawyer based in Delhi.