The Narendra Modi government insists that the biometric data of over 110 crore Indians who have enrolled for Aadhaar, a 12-digit identity number, is safe. Yet, it is struggling to keep these identity numbers confidential as required by law.

On Saturday, the personal details of nearly 15 lakh pensioners were publicly displayed on the website of the Jharkhand government’s Directorate of Social Security. The details included their Aadhaar and mobile phone numbers and bank account details – a breach that could potentially expose the beneficiaries to profiling and even financial fraud. The website was taken down by the administrators on Saturday night.

On Monday, the website of the Food and Civil Supplies Department of Chandigarh was reported to have publicised Aadhaar numbers of its Public Distribution System beneficiaries. The Union Territory has nearly 4.9 lakh such beneficiaries.

Such breaches of confidentiality have become frequent lately. On Monday, the website of the central government’s flagship Swachch Bharat Mission was found leaking Aadhaar details of its beneficiaries.

On March 29, the Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages the centralised database, blacklisted an enrolment agency after it inadvertently leaked details of former Indian cricket team captain MS Dhoni’s application to join the Aadhaar programme on Twitter. The leak and the authority’s swift action in the high-profile case were even debated in parliament.

Security researchers, in fact, have pointed out that Aadhaar numbers and associated demographic data is even showing up through simple internet searches. On February 17, security researcher Srinivas Kodali had alerted the authorities that a website had leaked the Aadhaar demographic data of over five lakh minors.

“When I reported the government website that was leaking this data, the UIDAI did not even acknowledge the complaint,” he alleged.

He added: “Besides the one I reported, the ministry of rural development’s website was showing Aadhaar numbers and details of over 10 crore Mnrega workers. That was not the first and these will not be the last, because by design, you are allowing the Aadhaar number and details to be stored by anyone. You do not even need an Application Programme Interface, right now everyone can build their own database of Aadhaar numbers.”

Yet, the government has remained silent about these repeated instances of negligence leading to the exposure of ordinary citizens’ data. It has given wide publicity to its action against nine private enrolment agencies, including the one that leaked Dhoni’s application, but is yet to take action against any government agency for serious breaches of data security.

A screenshop of the Swachh Bharat Mission displaying Aadhaar information.

Why are the leaks serious?

Section 6 of the Aadhaar (Sharing of Information) Regulations states:

the Aadhaar number of an individual shall not be published, displayed or posted publicly by any person or entity or agency.

In mandating confidentiality, the law-makers have acknowledged the sensitivity of what is designed as a single, universal, digital identity number that any registered entity, whether public or private, can use to “authenticate” an Indian resident.

Authentication can be performed either by verifying a resident’s biometrics (fingerprints or iris scans) or by matching the Aadhaar number with demographic attributes, or through a one-time password sent to a mobile number/email stored in the Central Identities Data Repository. There, the UIDAI confirms if the details – demographic or biometrics – are indeed associated with that particluar Aadhaar number.

While Aadhaar regulations state that an electronic know your customer query will require biometric authentication that may make it harder to commit fraud, government authorities have negligently published large caches of demographic data associated with Aadhaar that could be misused to carry out other fraudulent authentications on behalf of an individual.

A number of mobile apps already offer commercial services to verify potential employees, tenants, etc through Aadhaar. For example, TrustID, a mobile-based platform offers to verify individuals through their Aadhaar identities, using either biometrics or by simply matching demographic details or one-time password associated with the Aadhaar number. When such platforms send a query to the UIDAI, the latter responds with a Yes/No to authenticate the individual.

Kiran Jonnalgadda, co-founder of HasGeek, a community for software developers in Bengaluru, said such fraud would be “not be easy to detect and fix, as it is an electronic verification over a mobile app with no tell-tale physical signs.”

“And once an individual faces fraud, it is not clear how their Aadhaar numbers will be replaced with new ones as these are linked to third party databases that expect the number to be unique to an individual. What happens when the same individual shows up in a third party databases with both old and new numbers?,” he added. “The only solution would be is if these were revocable hardware tokens, such as chip and PIN credit or debit cards, or SIM cards, where having the physical card matters, but which can be replaced.”

There are also concerns with the government having made Aadhaar mandatory for a wide range of schemes. Increasingly, an Aadhaar card is being considered sufficient as a form of identification by authorities.

In a blog post, writer Senthil has pointed out that the UIDAI does not include holograms or physical signatures or any other security information in the Aadhaar cards that are sent to applicants . These are just colour printouts that are easy to replicate. The availability of Aadhaar numbers and demographic data in the public domain could heighten the risk of the use of fake Aadhaar cards.

On its part, the UIDAI allows individuals to receive alerts on mobile or email each time their Aadhaar number is authenticated, but it is not mandatory to register for it.

More seriously, under the law, the UIDAI is not under any legal obligation to inform Aadhaar users when a crime related to their personal data occurs. And the victims cannot approach a court directly because under Section 47 (1) of the Aadhaar Act, the UIDAI has the exclusive power to make complaints in case of any violation or breach of privacy.

Security researchers have alerted to National Health mission databases that are leaking Aadhaar details, bank account numbers, mobile numbers. This spreadsheet reveals Aadhaar and bank details of staff of a Karnataka government hospital in Bagalkote in an Internet search.

Careless attitude?

Government officials downplayed the breaches. MS Bhatia, secretary for women and child development and social security in Jharkhand, said, “The data showed up only if you queried particular pension IDs, it was not showing for all pensioners at the same time and would not have been readily available to someone trying to misuse it,” he claimed. “It may have been a software glitch but it is fixed now.”

Bhatia said prior to this incident, his department had not received any communication from the UIDAI on the storing of Aadhaar data. “They had not communicated anything to us,” he said.

Jharkhand Directorate of Social Security displayed Aadhaar numbers, bank accounts numbers and transaction details of over 15 lakh pensioners in the state.

In other states, officials in different departments have varying levels of information and awareness about the need for confidentiality of Aadhaar.

AK Somasekhar, a technical director with the National Informatics Centre in Chhattisgarh who is supervising the use of Aadhaar authentication in the Public Distribution System, said the state’s officials were aware that all Aadhaar information is confidential. “After the Aadhaar Act was passed, in the last one year, we have received more instructions from the Center on how this data is private, like how an individual’s mobile number is private,” he said. “In Chhattisgarh, for rations, we have a server operated by the NIC where we can easily determine what is to be displayed or not. But if tomorrow some staff with passwords shares or displays this information to others, then we cannot do anything.”

A senior official in Kerala who is supervising the creation of of elcetronic health records using Aadhaar as unique identity numbers said “so far, data security has not been a concern for us.”

“Programme managers have not fully realised that Aadhaar numbers are confidential,” said the official who declined to be identified. “They are looking at data security from their end, not from users’ point of view.”

Kerala government Sevana pension scheme website reveals Aadhaar details, electoral number, bank account numbers.

In Delhi, food and civil supplies department officials said they had received communication from their ministry regarding a Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on March 25 circular that state governments should not publish any sensitive information pertaining to beneficiaries, including Aadhaar numbers, demographic information, or financial details. “We told the NIC that we are not displaying any Aadhaar numbers publicly, and our officials will examine this further,” said MM Chandra, a senior systems analyst with the department. “But I cannot say why the number is being categorised as confidential.”

In Gujarat, Ranjeet Kumar, a director with the state food and civil supplies department who is supervising the linking of Aadhaar with ration cards, said that earlier this month, an additional director general of the UIDAI had visited the state and held a meeting with officials from all departments. “The meeting was to sensitise all departments on privacy, and how Aadhaar information should not be displayed publicly.” Kumar added that the UIDAI has not provided any training to state officials on maintaining the database. “It is not difficult to hide part of the information, and requires no special training, we should be able to do this easily,” he said.

In Rajasthan, Hansraj Yadav, an officer on special duty with the UIDAI said they had received a memorandum from the ministry that the Aadhaar number and information could not be displayed publicly. “The Supreme Court orders and Aadhaar Act have both prohibited the display of Aadhaar numbers,” he said.

A programme officer with the UIDAI in Jaipur, however, said “the display of Aadhaar numbers is not prohibited, only the display of information seeded with Aadhaar numbers such as bank account numbers, mobile numbers is prohibited”.

This was because such data could be misused. “For instance, several banks are already displaying customers’ Aadhaar data on notice boards. It is possible for someone to use the demographic information to alter the mobile number registered against an Aadhaar number, and once they do this, they can start receiving the one-time password on their mobile. Then, that person could wipe out your bank account,” he said.

Jean Dreze, a development economist at Ranchi University, said the government should take greater responsibility for the lapses.

“An impression has been created that Aadhaar and bank account numbers have been displayed on government websites due to temporary technical glitches. More likely, they have been visible for weeks if not months, in some cases at least,” he said. What made it worse, he added, was that “the victims have no recourse under the Aadhaar Act since the UIDAI has reserved for itself the right to lodge complaints. Nor does the UIDAI have a legal duty to monitor these breaches of privacy.”