“You’ll be tracked, you’ll be monitored, you’ll be recorded in a hundred different ways and not by UIDAI, but by the Aadhaar number they created that is being used by every other company and every other group in society,” Edward Snowden said during the ‘Talk Journalism’ event held in Jaipur last weekend. A video of Snowden’s live stage interview via Google Hangouts was published on YouTube recently. The said video has also been shared by many through a Google Drive link on Twitter.
The ex-CIA employee responsible for exposing multiple global surveillance programmes run by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US, was speaking his mind on digital privacy and India’s Aadhaar initiative which has been mired by various controversies since its weak data security protocols were exposed multiple times.
According to Snowden, Aadhaar should only be used solely for the purpose of social benefit and not be required for any other service. Snowden called for criminal penalties on companies that ask for a person’s Aadhaar number for a service that the Govt is not paying for.
“The biggest crime behind this system is that it’s being used for things that are unrelated to what the Govt is paying for. If you want to open an account, buy a train ticket, more and more of these services are demanding an Aadhaar number. Not just the number, they are demanding that you show them the physical card. This is creating a systemisation of society, of the public and this was not the intention of the programme,” Snowden said.
He continued to talk about how telecommunications companies in India misuse Aadhaar information for their own selfish purposes and to keep tabs on users. Snowden was obviously hinting at how Airtel misused Aadhaar information of its users to add new customers to its Payments Bank service without their explicit informed consent.
Snowden also addressed the recent Aadhaar controversy where Google admitted to pushing UIDAI’s helpline number to all Android phones. Questioning how the UIDAI phone number landed on all Android phones in the country, Snowden said, “They (Google) have an extraordinary amount of market share. Everyone in India is using an Android phone, unless they are rich enough to afford an iPhone. When you have that kind of position, it’s very difficult to make a change that affects the phone of everybody i the country and yet somehow, they managed to push this phone number to everybody.”
According to Snowden, UIDAI should make people aware of how Aadhaar can be misused instead of transferring the blame on Google and pretending not to have any knowledge of the fact. “The number 1 thing they always say in the public is that their data is safe, their biometrics are secure. The idea isn’t that you can go on the internet and access anyone’s Aadhaar information directly, it’s that it is being leaked,” he said referring to how claims like these led to TRAI Chairman RS Sharma’s data getting exposed after he shared his Aadhaar number on social media as a challenge to hackers.
Snowden concluded his comments on Aadhaar by saying that the system in already going bad and that privacy of Indians (digital or otherwise) is not adequately protected.