The Big Story: Consent nightmare

It is now routine to presume that people critical of Aadhaar are conspiracy theorists who expect the worst, particularly when they claim that the all-important Unique Identity database will eventually be breached by hackers. The government and the Unique Identity Authority of India insist that this has never happened, and discount fears about the vulnerablities of India’s national scheme to provide every resident with a 12-digit unique ID. In reality, most of the UID’s critics are basing their beliefs on something a lot less conspiratorial: the incompetence and callousness of the Indian government, and the willingness of many entities, particularly big business, to take advantage of that.

This week’s Airtel incident is proof that it does not require a crazy hacking scheme to compromise the Aadhaar ecosystem. The government on Wednesday suspended a service that maps connections between Aadhaar and bank accounts linked to it after it emerged that Airtel was using UID data collected as part of the SIM-linking exercise to open bank accounts for users without their explicit consent.

Here is what happened: Many people have already linked their Aadhaar to bank accounts, a task that is mandatory with a deadline of March 31, 2018. This is especially true for those who receive payouts from the government, like the LPG subsidy, since those direct benefit transfers are all deposited directly in the bank account linked to Aadhaar. Airtel earlier this year got a licence to start a payments bank, which allows it to function as a very basic banking company. The government has also mandated the linking of all SIM cards to Aadhaar by March 31, 2018. So, when people were attempting to link their Aadhaar to Airtel SIMs, the company was allegedly perforce opening Airtel payments accounts for customers. Since Aadhaar’s system was designed to send subsidy money to the last bank account linked to it, as many as 23 lakh customers received up to Rs 47 crore of subsidies in these accounts without their consent.

The government has now halted use of the Aadhaar Payment Bridge system that connects the UID to bank accounts for subsidies, while also suspending the licences that allow Airtel to verify customers electronically. On its part, Airtel has deposited a Rs 2.5 crore penalty with UIDAI.

But the fact that this happened in the first place is deeply disturbing. This is the perfect example of how it does not require a secret hacking effort to compromise Aadhaar. Instead, Airtel is alleged to merely have taken advantage of the government’s decision to force Indians to link a wide variety of services to Aadhaar for reasons that are still dubious, causing customers to see their money turn up somewhere completely different. This is exactly the sort of scenario activists have warned about for years now, if Aadhaar were to be forced on a country with limited government infrastructure, no data protection law and in which big businesses are free to experiment with consent.

Considering how big Aadhaar has become in such a short amount of time, mostly without consent of Indians and with little understanding of what it does, it is almost a certainty the Airtel and Aadhaar leaks cases will not be the last UID messes.

Punditry

  1. “It is impossible for India to simultaneously attain the three goals of keeping farm prices high, retail food prices low, and overall inflation under control through a tight fiscal policy – unless the food sector is radically reformed,” says a leader in Mint.
  2. “If SAARC is a broken-down vehicle, we need another instrument, but cannot ignore or abandon the task of building a largely cohesive and stable periphery, which is essential to prevent meddling by external powers and realise our legitimate aspirations in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” writes Sharat Sabharwal in the Indian Express.
  3. “A transactional leader can rarely accomplish the task of holding together a coalition of party activists with multiple and competing interests. Leaders who project themselves as transformational find it easier to hold an organisation together because they provide an ideological glue and make populist promises, which binds cross-cutting coalitions together,” write Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma in the Hindu.

Giggle

Don’t miss

Arunabh Saikia writes about a unique theatre festival in Assam that, without lights or sound systems, blends ecology and community life.

“What makes Under the Sal Tree unusual are its eco-friendly venue and aspirations – as the name implies, the festival’s main stage, which is made of mud, is located literally under a thick canopy of Sal trees in a reserve forest. The festival also follows a strict no-technology policy – there are no artificial lights or sound amplification systems. The actors are, therefore, required to modulate their voices in order to be audible to the audience, which reciprocates by offering its complete attention in absolute silence.

Through the three days, the veneration of the audience, which is made up mostly of local residents, towards the performers’ craft was evident. Not that this was always the case. When the festival first started in 2009, Rampur’s residents were almost hostile to it. The change in heart is, by most accounts, almost singularly the handiwork of a man named Sukracharjya Rabha, who is also the driving force behind the initiative.”