Last week, we learned from The Tribune that personal information collected as part of Aadhaar, India’s unique identity project, is being sold by vendors through WhatsApp for as little as Rs 500. Although Aadhaar’s holy of holies, its biometric database, has not yet been breached to the best of our knowledge, the data available on sale is worrying enough. The Unique Identification Authority of India, which manages Aadhaar, responded all too predictably, by filing a case against the newspaper and its reporter Rachna Khaira. That produced an equally predictable backlash, and gave the original story new legs. Even Edward Snowden got involved through Twitter.
Aside from pro-Bharatiya Janata Party stalwarts, a few independent voices defended Aadhaar, notably Shekhar Gupta in a piece colourfully headlined “God, please save India from our upper class Aadhaarophobics.” Unfortunately, Gupta’s copy followed its label-heavy title in dismissing without consideration the concerns of “the upper crust, upper class, wine ’n cheese, Netflix-watching social media elite”. Many of the responses he received on Twitter channelled the same spirit, consisting of ad hominem attacks rather than reasoned argument.
Quite a few attackers linked Gupta’s support for Aadhaar to the funding provided to his publication by Nandan Nilekani, who led Aadhaar’s roll-out and has supported its expansion into areas outside the UIDAI’s original purview. Such allegations are as unfair as Gupta’s own labelling. He has proven his independence through decades in journalism, and highlighted Nilekani’s backing for The Print in a disclaimer at the article’s end. Those worried about Aadhaar’s destructive potential should take his arguments seriously despite his derisive tone.
Gupta stated that, “All governments are hungry for information on citizens ‘of interest’ and will misuse it.” This is similar to Edward Snowden’s first Aadhaar-related tweet, in which he wrote, “It is the natural tendency of government to desire perfect records of private lives. History shows that no matter the laws, the result is abuse.” Unlike Snowden, however, Gupta is nonchalant about such intrusions and excesses. He believes his phone is tapped, but works around it: “If I need to protect a source, I’d be a dangerously incompetent journalist to call her from my phone. I shall borrow someone else’s. This is basic hygiene of a journalist’s life. Similarly, others must have their rules too.”
In this view, the government is already surveilling people of interest, and Aadhaar will make no difference to that effort: “Would any government need me to have Aadhaar to do this any better? I’d be delusional to think that.” This is Gupta’s fundamental error. Aadhaar, through its forced linkage with telecommunications and economic transactions, has made surveillance of the type Snowden exposed considerably easier.
A different world
To illustrate what I mean, let’s look at the last big controversy in India involving surveillance. Between August and September 2008, Amit Shah, then Gujarat’s home minister, was in regular touch with a senior police officer named GL Singhal. Singhal taped these conversations, which revolved around the surveillance of a woman at the behest of a person Shah referred to as “Saheb”. The tapes found their way to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and were later leaked to investigative reporters, who published them, leading to a scandal promptly dubbed Snoopgate. The father of the woman being surveilled, Pranlal Soni, doused the controversy by stating he had personally asked Narendra Modi, with whom he claimed “long standing family relations”, to take care of his daughter at a time when her mother’s hospitalisation had forced her to commute at odd hours.
I have said Soni’s statement doused the controversy, though in truth it should have inflamed it further, because it proved the saheb in question was Gujarat’s then chief minister. As far as Soni’s justification for the surveillance is concerned, a cursory hearing of the fascinating tapes will prove its absurdity. Shah was clearly preoccupied not with the girl’s safety but the identity of the people she met, especially men. Without a warrant, based purely on oral instructions, he had Singhal tap phones, get information from telecom companies, airlines, and closed circuit camera feeds, and bring in personnel from the Crime Branch, Intelligence Bureau and Anti-Terror Squad to trail the woman and her companions (in the case of the Anti-Terror Squad, Shah made the suggestion, but Singhal turned him down saying he didn’t trust those people). Despite the hours and manpower deployed and the personal attention of the state home minister and chief minister (Shah mentioned that Saheb has other sources of information beside the stream provided by Singhal and himself), the surveillance was stalled and thwarted constantly, partly because the woman suspected her phone was tapped and used other devices when she could.
Consider now if Singhal’s Humint had been complemented by advanced Sigint. Snowden revealed how the National Security Agency of the United States had the capacity to intercept the communications of the country’s citizens at will, and how the agency’s operatives, using lax rules and court orders, gained sweeping access to communications through Gmail, Yahoo and Verizon, among other service providers.
Now, think of a similar system deployed in India. Add to this the unique advantage Aadhaar provides, of being a one-stop shop for access to all relevant information about an individual: phone number, email address, residential address, bank account, credit card, PAN and tax returns. Add, further, the crucial device that barely existed when Amit Shah teamed with Singhal but is ubiquitous now: the smartphone crammed with handy apps. Those apps all request, in many cases insist on, access to your phone’s camera and microphone. Each of us moves around with a device in our pockets or purses that can be turned into a voice and video recorder at the will of a sufficiently powerful individual.
Add, finally, the ability of Indian leaders, proven by the Amit Shah tapes, to intrude into peoples’ lives with impunity and without a semblance of due process. When you add all these up, you have a formula for the end of privacy at the very least and at worst the technological underpinning of an authoritarian state. Aadhaar contributes enormously to that destructive potential by collating information that would otherwise have to be pieced together painstakingly from disparate sources.
If Gupta were to read these words, he might think they were written by a chap in a tin foil hat, but I believe my columns display an aversion to conspiracy theories and apocalyptic scenarios. I have grown convinced, however, that the more Aadhaar extends beyond its original mandate of providing benefits efficiently, the greater the threat it poses to the foundations of India’s democracy. Nor will a privacy law, urgently required though one is, ward off its worst dangers, because any privacy law is bound to make exceptions for national security and such provisions will be grossly abused.
With luck, the Supreme Court will deliver a strong judgement in favour of privacy when it hears petitions related to Aadhaar next week. But even that could be too little, too late. The next time Gupta wants to protect a source, switching phones may well be futile because the Aadhaar-boosted virus of state surveillance will be powerful enough to bypass such basic journalistic hygiene.