Telecoms' Aadhaar con: A portent of things to come

Last Updated: Wed, Oct 04, 2017 12:03 hrs
Telecoms' Aadhaar con: A portent of things to come

Since the inception of the idea of Aadhaar, both the UPA government that made a push for it and the NDA government which was once so anti-Aadhaar have been trying to persuade us that feeding our biometric data into an all-encompassing identity card is a good idea. They have tried to assure us that our details are safe and encrypted, that only the powers that be will have access to them, that private companies will not be able to make capital of them, and that this is among the many drastic measures they have brought in with the ostensible aim of eliminating fraud.

However, from leaks on government websites to calls from various vendors, those who have registered for Aadhaar have had plenty of evidence that their data is not as safe or private or inaccessible as they would like to believe.

Despite the Supreme Court’s decision that the right to privacy is a fundamental one, guaranteed in the constitution, this right is being constantly violated. The latest controversy is courtesy of mobile operators which insist on numbers being linked to Aadhaar, more than four months ahead of the government’s deadline (which could be overruled).

I use Vodafone, and have had devious messages claiming my SIM is expiring, and asking me to rush to a Vodafone store immediately for continued service. When I called them up, they told me it was because Aadhaar linking was mandatory. When I told them it was not and the case was being heard, and asked to speak to the manager, the executive asked me to hold the line until it was cut.

Airtel has been recording the biometric details of clients for Aadhaar verification.

When the court is yet to decide on whether Aadhaar can be forced upon the country, and when the question of whether Aadhaar is necessary to acquire a new SIM card is still under review, why is a private operator recording biometric data from existing customers, simply to continue providing service?

For the record, in all the Western countries that India aspires to be like, one needs no identification to pick up a pre-paid SIM card. One literally arrives at an airport, walks into a shop and buys a UK, US, or France pay-as-you-go SIM card, no questions asked.

In India, though, we are practically being microchipped, even as the case concerning privacy is sub-judice.

Even if Aadhaar were to be made mandatory for government services, why does a private company need our fingerprints?

Fingerprints are not required to link one’s bank account, PAN card, ration card, or LPG subsidy.

And neither Airtel nor the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has any answers to the question of how they will guarantee that this sensitive data is not misused. In fact, there is evidence that the data is being misused.

On September 21, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) sent a notice to Airtel and its payments bank for flouting the rules governing Aadhaar (apparently, there are a few), in the wake of allegations that the operator’s retailers were opening payments banks in consumers’ names, using their Aadhaar details, without informed consent. The notice reads that the UIDAI has come to learn that "Airtel retailers are allegedly opening Airtel payments Bank account at the time of performing Aadhaar e-KYC verification without informing the purpose of e-KYC and also without taking informed consent of the customer", and also that this account was then linked to receiving LPG subsidy.

Airtel has not given a clear response to the media’s enquiries regarding the notice. Their statement only maintains that they have not done anything without consumer consent.

For the record, while there has been a Government of India Gazette notification that mandates linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts, there does not seem to be one that requires mobile phone operators to link Aadhaar for all existing customers and collect biometric data to do so, nor one that implies mobile phone service will be discontinued if the existing numbers are not linked with Aadhaar.

In a Facebook post that has more than 900 shares already, writer Amandeep Sandhu recounted his experience in trying to question Airtel on its claim that the government requires customers to link their phone numbers with Aadhaar.

In his email to the customer service team, Sandhu wrote: "I seek to know the Government Notification number, the Law and Clause under which you have been instructed to collect Aadhar information from millions of your customers. Also, whose notification is it? Your customer service manager, please check records around 10.30 PM, was not clear if it was a TRAI Notification or a notification from the Home Ministry."

He also attached a screenshot of a tweet by Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad's tweet at 10:47 am on 10 September this year, which reads, "No one is forcing to link Aadhaar with all facilities [sic.]".

He has not had a response from Airtel. And if the service provider cannot quote the relevant law or notification, its linking of Aadhaar with mobile numbers, as well as its collection of biometric data, are illegal.

Vodafone, Jio, as well as Idea have been harassing clients to switch to 4G SIMs – new SIMs require Aadhaar verification – or, in the case of their having already switched, to link with Aadhaar "immediately".

If we allow them to get away with this con, if no strict action is taken or penalty imposed for their violation of our privacy, it won’t be long before other private companies begin to tap this database.

It is frightening to think that there are hundreds of millions of people in this country who have already linked their biometric details with a device that can track their locations. In a country where journalists and rationalists are targeted by hit men and politicians, is this a risk any of us can afford to take?

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