“And at that time, it was felt that let us first give Aadhaar number, let us see how it plays out and then, at an appropriate time, this will be introduced,” Ajay Bhushan Pandey, the chief executive officer of UIDAI, or the Unique Identification Authority of India said in an interview to NDTV this week. He called it an “extra layer of security” for the 119 crore people issued Aadhaar numbers.
It may be a step forward. But not everyone is as convinced.
Cyber security Jiten Jain is one of them. Mr Jain told NDTV that UIDAI should first of all decide if the Aadhaar number was confidential information or not because it had changed its stance on this aspect on more than one occasion.
Like when government departments put out lakhs of Aadhaar number, the government agency had insisted that there was nothing really confidential about the number which could not be misused. Or when The Tribune earlier this month claimed to have found gaps in UIDAI’s security system that let the newspaper demographic details of an individual, UIDAI claimed that “the Aadhaar number is not a secret number” anyways.
Also, a point is being made that if hiding an Aadhaar number enhances privacy, then what about the crores of people who have been forced to share their Aadhaar numbers – and a copy of their Aadhaar cards – all these years.
Experts suggest the timing of the announcement may not have been a coincidence. The initiative came against the backdrop of mounting privacy concerns after the newspaper expose. The hearing by a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court to decide if the Aadhaar project violates citizens’ privacy is to start hearing from next week, January 17.
Srinivas Kodali, cyber security expert and an Aadhaar researcher, said it was clear that the UIDAI had brought it hurriedly. “They said they will release the codes by March 1. So it clearly looks like they haven’t planned this thoroughly,” he said.
There are also concerns about the ability of people living in remote areas to generate the Virtual IDs, in terms of connectivity and literacy. That means a large proportion of people would not be able to generate the Virtual IDs.
UIDAI chief Mr Pandey said there was nothing to prevent them from continuing to use their Aadhaar number. It is an option, he stressed.
This, experts at the Bengaluru-based research group, Centre for Internet and Society, which has long advocated for a token system such as the Virtual ID, said was a problem area.
“Privacy can be protected by design and not by choice,” said CIS executive director Sunil Abraham, who believes the biggest flaw with Aadhaar was its design.
“Since it is not mandatory most people will just use the Aadhaar number instead of getting into the hassle of generating a VID… This is privacy through hurdles instead of privacy by design. I suggest authorities should generate VIDs for people and ensure that third parties only use VID and not the Aadhaar number,” Pranesh Prakash at the CIS’ policy director told NDTV.