The strained relationship between India and Pakistan witnessed a new twist last week when Delhi Police claimed that a staffer at the visa department in the Pakistan High Commission’s office in New Delhi had led them to an espionage network.

The Pakistani man, identified as Mehmood Akhtar, was detained briefly and released after a round of questioning, with the police citing diplomatic immunity.

Several documents pertaining to army and paramilitary troop locations were said to have been found in his possession.

He was soon declared persona non grata and asked to leave India.

More arrests followed as four men said to be Akhtar's associates were apprehended.

But the real twist in the tale was something else.

Akhtar had apparently first produced an Aadhaar document with his photograph, which identified him as Mehboob Rajput, son of Hasan Ali, residing at 2350, Gali Near Madari, Rodgran Mohalla in Chandni Chowk.

The address was correct, police said, except that the house with this number is actually on GB Road, Delhi’s red light area, nearly a kilometre away. There is no Rodgran mohalla nor gali near Madari located in Chandni Chowk.

The Aadhaar document had clearly been obtained using fraudulent means, police concluded, once Akhtar's identity as a Pakistani national was established.

“We have written to the Unique Identification Authority of India but they are yet to respond on the matter,” said Joint Commissioner of Delhi Police (Crime Branch) Ravindra Yadav.

Getting an Aadhaar number

“He [Akhtar] often used to approach people who used to come to the visa department," said a police official who was privy to the investigation. "This is how he came in contact with a person identified as Ashiq Ali.”

“Ali later introduced Akhtar to another man, Yaseer, who has helped him to acquire the Aadhaar number,” the officer said. “The only things that Akhtar gave Yaseer were a fake name and two passport sized photographs, and the rest was left to his imagination.”

The police suspect the involvement of one or more Aadhaar operators employed with some enrolment agency – private bodies entrusted with the task of collecting the biometrics under the largely outsourced unique identity programme.

The incident gains prominence as earlier this month the Supreme Court of India referred to a larger bench all petitions challenging Aadhaar as an authenticating proof of identity and availing of social benefits by citizens that the central government is soon to notify through its gazette regulations approved by the UIDAI under the Aadhaar Act, 2016.

“The Pakistan spy’s fake Aadhaar number is only one case. There could be thousand others,” said Col (retd) Mathew Thomas, one of the first persons to file a civil suit against the UID system in 2011. “One has to see what kind of information these enrolment agencies are dealing with. There is nothing too shocking about the Pakistani spy having acquired an Aadhaar number through forged means. The entire process takes place with literally no cross verification.”

Indeed, the weaknesses in the system have been exposed by media reports about Aadhar numbers being issued to Lord Hanuman and Tommy Singh, a dog, among others.

The Act says that any person who has lived in India for 182 days in one year preceding the date of application for enrolment is eligible for acquiring an Aadhaar number. All that is needed in addition is a designated introducer – no documentary proof of identity or address is required.

“These provisions demand for a stricter verification process, which does not happen,” said Prasanna S, a Delhi-based lawyer representing several petitioners challenging the unique identity programme at the Supreme Court. “This is how we have so far come across Aadhaar numbers issued to Lord Hanuman and other fictitious characters.”

In the 2014 case, the man who got enrolled as Hanuman had later claimed to be the victim of a technical glitch and told police that he did so after the system refused to accept his biometrics which he had already registered.

"If Lord Hanuman can get an Aadhaar number, why can't a Pakistani spy?" Prasanna asked.

The roles of enrolment agencies have always been a subject of dispute ever since the UPA-led government started issuing Aadhaar numbers in 2010 under an executive order, pointed out lawyer Rahul Narayan, who is the counsel for several petitioners challenging the unique identification project in the Supreme Court.

“What are the credentials of these people who shall deal with data of utmost privacy? What is the guarantee that they will not misuse or leak those data? These questions have often been taken up since the inception of the programme,” Narayan said.

Days before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Narendra Modi had called the Aadhaar project a political gimmick with no vision. Two years down the line, the project has fired the imagination of policy-makers who are convinced that biometrics is the best possible way to help the state in identifying and verifying beneficiaries of social welfare schemes, allow portability of benefits across states and enable administrators to link and track multiple databases at one go.

To expand enrolment under the scheme, the Centre has often asked the state government to ask residents to produce Aadhaar for a range of interactions with the state. These have ranged from employment in government schemes, participating in elections, opening bank accounts, registering for marriage to, more recently, adopting a child. The Supreme Court has had to intervene time and again in the past two years, passing orders saying that the Aadhaar number cannot be a pre-condition for availing public services.

A forged Aadhaar number?

“Technically, there is no such thing as a forged Aadhaar number,” said a former senior UIDAI officer who did not want to be identified. “The unique identity is a combination of a set of biometrics with some basic details like name, address, date of birth, etc. What is often called a forged identity is actually a possible mismatch in the said combination.”

Elaborating on the technicality, he further said, “For instance, if a person acquires a driving license and a voter’s identity card through forged documents and then registers under the unique identity scheme, will that be considered a forged Aadhaar registration? No, because the forgery took place at other points.”

He further said, “In the past two years, we have received thousands of enquiries from police across the country asking us to cross-verify what they considered forged Aadhaar documents and in most cases we landed in a similar situation. In many of those cases, probes were initiated and only on obtaining sufficient evidence to suggest that information produced by the enrolled person were wrong, we deactivated their accounts.”

“One has to be really cautious in dealing with such cases as the other person can also take up the matter in a court because to get a legitimate unique identity number is also his right. In one particular case, documents of a candidate whose papers were forwarded by the OSD [Officer on Special Duty] of a union minister had come under scrutiny” he said.

However, the officer said that it is not very difficult to trace the background of a candidate under scrutiny because all documents submitted at the time of enrolment are uploaded in a central database.

On being asked about the role of enrolment agencies, he said that these private entities are approved by the headquarters and the machine operators working under them have to clear a test.

“It is not that operators do not indulge in mischief. In past one year, nearly 200 operators were blacklisted.”

The senior officer, however, could not recall any instance of having blacklisted any enrolment agency.