Governance

Data leaks make the poor sitting ducks for frauds, identity thefts

Contrary to the Centre’s assurances, government websites are revealing digital details of the poor, leaving them vulnerable to financial frauds and identity theft <b></b>

Photo by Priyanka Parashar/Mint via Getty Images

Sebastian PT

Could there be a method to the madness? Or is it just carelessness? From the Jharkhand Government to the Union Territory of Chandigarh to the Union Ministry of Water and Sanitation to even Mizoram’s Food and Civil Supplies Department, government websites are found to have displayed Aadhaar details of citizens, a crime under the law.


In Jharkhand, details of 16 lakh beneficiaries – their bank account details, ration card and the 12-digit Aadhaar number – were displayed on the website of the Directorate of Social Security. Similar blunders were witnessed from different corners of the country from Chandigarh to Kerala, where details of 35 lakh people have been breached. This flies in the face of the Government’s repeated claims on data privacy, that Aadhaar details are completely safe.

Data leaks make the poor sitting ducks for frauds, identity thefts
An edited screenshot of the leaked Aadhaar, bank account and other details on the Jharkhand website

The law doesn’t allow this. The displaying of the Aadhaar data, for instance, is in clear violation of Section 29 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016. The provision clearly says that “no” Aadhaar number or core biometric information of an Aadhaar number holder shall be “published, displayed or posted publicly”.


“There appears to be no regulation worth the name as far as the Aadhaar project is concerned,” says economist Reetika Khera from IIT Delhi.


So, will these officials responsible be punished according to the Act? More importantly, what about the damage of leaking such sensitive, apparently confidential data?


IRREPARABLE DAMAGE

Several cyber security experts have been warning of the possibility of precisely such leaks and Opposition parties were vociferously pointing this out while the Centre was brazenly violating the Supreme Court’s orders and forcibly extending Aadhaar to almost everything – including it being linked to one’s Permanent Account Number (PAN), used for filing income tax.

Data leaks make the poor sitting ducks for frauds, identity thefts
An edited version of the leaked Aadhaar details on the Chandigarh Food and Supplies Department website


“What has been broken through technology, can’t be fixed with the law,” says Sunil Abraham, Executive Director of Bangalore-based research organisation, the Centre for Internet and Society.


The data breach just made it easy for players in the black market for ID (identification) documents to be lapped up to create false ID cards, for instance.


When demonetisation was being implemented, sources say that black money hoarders apparently bought fake IDs which were made from stolen Aadhaar details to get the old notes exchanged – one way for doing this was perhaps by opening new bank accounts or to, say, utilise unused Jan Dhan accounts to deposit the money. Now, one can only imagine what terrorists can do with these details.


So far, perhaps, the only solace is that the biometric details of the beneficiaries weren’t leaked. But, in the backdrop of the lax attitude of the various government departments, even that too is just waiting to happen, fear experts.


Abraham warns that Aadhaar was always a risky proposition as it was based on biometrics, which “made it very insecure”. He terms it as a “mass surveillance technology” – that too a poorly-designed technology – which, in fact, “undermines security”. Once biometric data are compromised, it cannot be secured again. Instead of biometrics, he suggests the UIDAI shift to using smart cards.


The unfettered forcible linking of almost everything – from bank accounts to one’s PAN card – to Aadhaar only makes things worse. “The Centre is ‘seeding’ the various data bases with the Aadhaar number, which is a very bad move. And, involving various private and public agencies in this only makes the entire thing very precarious,” warns Abraham. He points out that, for instance, when the PAN cards are linked with the Aadhaar number, breach made possible.


Instead, he says, the government should adopt the ‘tokenisation approach’, instead of the ‘seeding approach’. What this means is that, say, if the PAN card is to be linked to Aadhaar, then UIDAI issues a token number and not the original 12-digit Aadhaar number. So, even if a breach happens, the hacker will not be able to get all the Aadhaar details, he says.


However, the government does not seem to be taking the issue of privacy very seriously. What perhaps is not being understood is that this is not just a privacy issue, but making the masses vulnerable to frauds. Instead of treading cautiously in implementing Aadhaar, the government seems to be in a hurry to extend it to almost every possible silo in an individual’s life.


“Given the callous attitude of central and state governments, I hope that the Supreme Court will stop the government from a forced linking of Aadhaar, on the one hand, and bank accounts and PAN numbers on the other hand,” says Khera.


(The original headline was changed later)

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Published: 26 Apr 2017, 5:26 PM