Shooting the messenger


The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has come under flak for filing an FIR against a journalist who exposed a breach in the Aadhaar database. Instead of shooting the messenger, the authority should have taken steps to fix the loopholes. It is unfair to target the scribe for pointing out gaping holes in the maintenance of data. There are genuine concerns over the violation of citizens’ privacy because of the multiplicity of agencies involved in the task of collecting the Aadhaar data. While it is nobody’s case that the country should not have a robust database of citizens for the purpose of identification and fine-tuning the delivery of welfare benefits to the deserving sections, the loopholes in the system must be plugged. By initiating a criminal complaint against the journalist, the UIDAI has exposed itself to the charge of gagging the media and targeting the whistleblowers. The media was only performing its duty of exposing the vulnerabilities of the system and it must be seen as a matter of public interest. It is deplorable that an FIR was registered against the reporter of the English daily ‘The Tribune’ under section 66 of the IT Act and other IPC provisions. The move has been strongly condemned by the Editors Guild of India and opposition parties. Instead of penalising the reporter, the UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public.

The newspaper carried a report last week, mentioning that they had purchased a service being offered for Rs 500 by anonymous sellers over ‘WhatsApp’. The service provided unrestricted access to details for any of more than one billion Aadhaar numbers. The media report should serve as a wake-up call on the possibility of a security breach to Aadhaar database. The government must find ways to make the system fool-proof. The misgivings over the Aadhaar programme possibly turning into a mass surveillance tool can be effectively addressed by putting in place robust data privacy and protection law. As the country is on the path of adopting new technologies for seamlessly connecting its billion-odd citizens, the problems of identification theft, breach of privacy, fraud and misrepresentation are emerging as new areas of concern. While enough safeguards are needed to prevent data theft, the rejection of Aadhaar system on the grounds of possible privacy breach is like throwing the baby with the bathwater. Aadhaar, a 12-digit unique-identity number issued to all citizens based on their biometric and demographic data, is essentially an identification tool for streamlining citizen services. While genuine concerns over privacy issues need to be addressed, the importance of having a robust and scientific database of citizens cannot be ignored.