Ajay Bhushan Panday, chief executive of the Unique Identity Authority of India (UIDAI) responded to concerns surrounding privacy of users, data breaches, and Aadhaar being made increasingly mandatory for government services in an exclusive interview with Prerna Baruah from CNBC TV18. A video of the interview, and the entire transcript, is available at Moneycontrol.
Noting that an Aadhaar identity has been provided to over 113 crore people from the launch of the program in 2010, Bhushan pointed out that the Aadhaar database is adequately secured and there has been no breach in the central database so far.
On 15 February, 2017, UIDAI filed a police complaint against Axis bank, Suvidha Infoserve and eMudhra over an attempted fraudulent authentication and impersonation with the Aadhaar system. Following reports of the attempted breach, the UIDAI reaffirmed that there has been no breach in the central Aadhaar database.
In the CNBC TV18 interview, Bhushan responded to concerns of data security, but did not address the issues surrounding data privacy. Bhushan pointed out the flawless track record of the UIDAI so far, saying “not a single case of data leak from the UIDAI, data breach from UIDAI, not a single case of identity theft or financial loss has been reported to us. So, this is the only thing that I would like to say and then the people should make a judgment whether Aadhaar is safe or not.”
On 22 March, 2017, A Medium post by the user St_Hill pointed out four major concerns with the Aadhaar program. One of the concerns raised that a simple search on Google revealed a number of databases that contained sensitive personal information, including bank accounts and Aadhaar numbers. Some of the databases were from .gov.in domains, which showed that various government web sites were leaking sensitive information they had collected.
Users on Reddit pointed out that many of the databases were being pulled, especially from Government owned web sites. There was no expectation of an official statement. A banner is up on the UIDAI web site reminding all agencies collecting Aadhaar information that it was illegal to make the information available on public portals. Bhushan pointed out that under the Aadhaar Act, it was an offence to publicly publish an Aadhaar number, and that publishing bank account numbers was an offense under the Income Tax act.
In the interview, Bhushan indicated some of the measures being taken, saying “So, that is what the government, last week, gave an advisory to all ministries of the central government and also the state government saying that please be vigilant, be respectful to the privacy of people and do not publish such data including Aadhaar, including bank account details and other things because we need to respect the privacy of the people whom you try to serve.”
Another question raised was if a dedicated privacy bill has the potential to settle some of the concerns over database security. India has no dedicated laws for privacy, or the security of databases. Bhushan responded by pointing out that as far as the Aadhaar database was concerned, the necessary data protection laws were built into the Aadhaar Act itself.
“So, far as the Aadhaar Act is concerned, this whole privacy protection features have been inbuilt into the Aadhaar Act itself. For example Aadhaar Act Section 29 describes what privacy protection measures are there,” Bhushan said.
There were concerns of sensitive information being leaked from the collection agency itself. Bhushan said that, “At the time of collection of Aadhaar number and biometric that agency has to disclose the purpose for which Aadhaar number is being collected. Then this Aadhaar number can be used only for the purpose which was disclosed to that resident. In case if there is any violation then again it is a serious offence under the Aadhaar Act.”
Ravi Shankar Prasad responded by tweeting that “Thanks for bringing this to my notice. Sharing personal information is illegal. Serious action will be taken against this.” He went on to note that there was no breach in the Aadhaar database, and that Aadhaar is secure.
Bhushan was asked about the concerns by citizens and the opposition parties over Aadhaar being used for distribution of Government benefits. Bhushan pointed out that to continue receiving the benefits, it was either necessary to have an Aadhaar card, or enroll for one. The ruling in question says that the lack of an Aadhaar card is no reason for people not to receive benefits, till such time as they get one. The ruling also goes on to add that the government cannot be stopped from using Aadhaar card for documentation purposes, such as the filing of income tax returns.
As far as citizens having to hurry to enroll for Aadhaar within stipulated deadlines for PAN card, filing IT returns, and getting a driving license, Bhushan pointed out that UIDAI had nothing to do with the deadlines the various departments have come up with.
“So far as the use of Aadhaar is concerned, the use is governed by the rules of those user departments and we do not have any say in that. For example, if the income tax department has said that by such and such date, you should link your Aadhaar to the PAN card, it is the discretion or the jurisdiction of income tax department,” Bhushan said.
Essentially, the responses were rehashes of how the UIDAI and associated parties have been responding to criticisms from the very inception of the program. That the UIDAI database is adequately secured, and that there are no problems with the Aadhaar program, and that it has been a roaring success.
Fundamental problems with biometric security, such as marginal failure rate that can potentially affect tens of thousands in the population the size of India, and the potential for invasive surveillance by the government were not addressed. It is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible for citizens to choose not to get an Aadhaar card.
A central database such as Aadhaar, no matter how well secured, is a high value target for malicious actors and state sponsored hackers. Indian laws will find it difficult to hold breaches from foreign sources accountable. Fundamental information security problems anyway cannot be solved by throwing harsh laws at them.