Aadhaar assurances fail to assuage privacy concerns

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 20, 2017 06:23 AM
While Aadhaar may be secure from external attacks, a failsafe system hasn’t been developed to protect it from Edward Snowden-style leakages and hacks.

The article by Anirban Sen was published by Livemint on May 5, 2017. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

As calls for a privacy and data protection law grow louder with each passing day amid reports of a central government ministry having made up to 130 million Aadhaar numbers public on its website, widespread concerns continue to emerge over loopholes in the security of the unique identification programme, though the man who created the system continues to defend the security and integrity of the system.

Most worryingly, a consensus is emerging among security and privacy experts, who have argued that while the Aadhaar system may be secure from external attacks, a failsafe system has not been developed to protect it from Edward Snowden-style internal leaks or hacks.

“(What has been suggested by the Unique Identification Authority of India and Nandan Nilekani) is that there will never be a data breach like what we saw in the US with the National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, or Office of Personnel and Management breaches (data of federal government personnel, including more than 5.6 fingerprints, was leaked), or in Mexico or Turkey, or even in India when the department of defence was breached for cyber-espionage for multiple years without detection,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Centre for Internet and Society.

“While the system may be secure from external attacks, there is no failsafe system to make it invulnerable to Snowden-style breaches,” he added.

In an interview, former UIDAI chairman and Infosys Ltd co-founder Nandan Nilekani continued to defend the security of the system and said steps are being taken everyday to enhance the failsafe processes surrounding the system.

“I think the Aadhaar system is extremely well-designed. It’s not an online system that is exposed to the Internet. When enrolment happens, the packet is encrypted at source and sent, so that there can’t be a man-in-the-middle attack. And when the authentication happens, that is also encrypted—not compared to the original data, but to a digital minutiae. The point is that the system is very, very secure. So, if the objection is to centralization, then you should not have clouds. Clouds are also centralized,” said Nilekani. He added that Aadhaar was also safe from internal breaches, an assumption that is being challenged by security experts all across.

“Within seven years of its launch, the Aadhaar system has made a remarkable leap in terms of its security and privacy and it will keep improving things. Technology does not come through immaculate conception, where one morning some perfect technology is born. It has to evolve. It’s called learning by doing,” added Nilekani. He added that improving the security of the system is an ongoing process and conceded that a data protection and privacy law needs to be in place to supplement the current Aadhaar law.

“I know the government has sent a notice to everyone. If somebody has done it; they ought not to have done it—there’s a law for that,” said Nilekani when asked about recent instances of Aadhaar numbers being made public by government departments.

“We should have a data protection and privacy law which is an umbrella law, which looks at all these phenomena and certainly Aadhaar should be part of that. That’s perfectly fine—but people are behaving as if Aadhaar is the only reason why we should have a privacy law,” added Nilekani.

The last few weeks and months have witnessed a steady stream of negative news surrounding Aadhaar and three main cases are currently being fought in the Supreme Court, including one challenging the government’s decision to make the 12-digit ID mandatory for filing income tax returns as well as for obtaining and retaining a PAN Card.

Meanwhile, as Mint reported in April, questions are being raised on the Aadhaar biometric authentication failure rate in the rural job guarantee scheme in areas such as Telangana.

The report of Aadhaar numbers being listed on the government ministry website has caused widespread uproar, although a lawyer pointed out that it is not due to a breach in the Aadhaar system.

“It’s a misnomer to say this a leak because this was voluntarily, very actively put up there. A leak is when some information being kept securely gets breached somehow and comes out. Now, why is this information up on government websites? This is the problem of our government’s perception of transparency...The fact that the Aadhaar numbers are on the government website is not a flaw of the Aadhaar system, but it is a flaw of the understanding of what needs to be done to demonstrate transparency,” said Rahul Matthan, partner at Trilegal.

In a column in Mint, Matthan had also pointed out that while Aadhaar has been a transformative project, there remains enough scope of misusing the database.

“There is a legitimate fear that this identity technology will open us all up to discrimination, prejudice and the risk of identity theft,” Matthan wrote. “Aadhaar has given us the tools to harness data in large volumes. If used wisely, this technology can transform the nation. If not, it can cause us untold harm. We need to be prepared for the impending flood of data—we need to build dams, sluice gates and canals in its path so that we can guide its flow to our benefit.”

Even as both sides debate the issue of Aadhaar’s security, calls are getting louder to revamp the unique identification database.

“The point is that the UIDAI knows the device ID of the machine with which the biometric transaction took place along with the time and date, which means that by just using basic data analytics, any one with access to the transaction logs from the UIDAI (which have to be kept for a period of 5 years and 6 months) can have a complete view of a person’s Aadhaar-based interactions that are increasing day by day.”

“Further, the UIDAI has built up a biometric profile of the entire country. This means that courts can order UIDAI to provide law enforcement agencies the biometrics for an entire state (as the Bombay high court did) to check if they match against the fingerprints recovered from a crime scene. This too is surveillance, since it collects biometrics of all residents in advance rather than just that of criminal suspects,” said Prakash of CIS.

“The UIDAI could have chosen to derive unique 16 digit numbers from your Aadhaar number and provide a different one to each requesting entity. That would have prevented much of these fears. But the UIDAI did not opt for that more privacy-friendly design,” he added.