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The Guy Who Helped Create India’s Controversial National ID Program Leaked His Own Data, And It’s Still Online

Nandan Nilekani

Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty Pictures

Three years after Nandan Nilekani, the high-profile tech entrepreneur who helped create India’s controversial biometric id program referred to as Aadhaar, publicly tweeted his personal confidential Aadhaar ID, his private data continues to be available on-line, BuzzFeed Information has realized.

An Aadhaar ID, which is related to private data like your handle and birthdate, and is linked to companies reminiscent of your checking account, tax information, cellphone quantity, and insurance coverage, is like an extreme form of a social security number within the US, which can be linked to your biometric information.

From 2009 to 2014, Nilekani served as the pinnacle of the Distinctive Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the federal government company accountable for administering Aadhaar. This system goals to create a digital nationwide id system by amassing the non-public particulars and biometrics — all 10 fingerprints and iris scans — of 1.three billion Indian residents right into a government-owned database. Critics have slammed Aadhaar, saying it violates privateness, permits state surveillance, and exposes residents to id theft.

Nilekani uncovered himself to id theft by tweeting an image of his personal Aadhaar card on April 12, 2014. He blacked out the primary eight digits of his 12-digit Aadhaar quantity, however didn’t obscure the QR code containing his private demographic particulars that might be learn by any freely out there iOS or Android app used for scanning QR codes.

And as with absolutely anything that’s publicly tweeted, Nilekani’s non-public data stays on-line. Members of an web discussion board widespread with laptop programmers scanned his QR code and posted his demographic particulars and Aadhaar quantity, and this information finally ended up on at the least half a dozen different internet pages that BuzzFeed Information reviewed. Pictures of Nilekani’s tweet together with his Aadhaar card exist on at the least one widespread web site.

Regardless of a number of individuals on Twitter stating a possible breach of privateness, Nilekani’s tweet remained on Twitter at the least by September 2016, when he lastly deleted it.

“I suppose Nandan didn’t notice what he had executed at first,” mentioned Prasanto Okay Roy, a former expertise journalist who was one of many individuals who alerted Nilekani. “And I don’t suppose he paid a lot consideration to it even when it was flagged, most likely pondering that it wasn’t a giant deal since, as a widely known individual and the pinnacle of the Aadhaar program, most of his demographic particulars have been publicly out there anyway. I believe he should have realized the seriousness of it later — that his tweet would possibly counsel to others that it was OK to publish an image of your Aadhaar card just by redacting the Aadhaar quantity itself.”

In September 2016, India’s authorities handed the Aadhaar Act to manipulate this system, which made publishing an Aadhaar quantity publicly a felony offence.

Nilekani didn’t reply to BuzzFeed Information’ requests for remark. However a supply near him mentioned underneath the situation of anonymity that they suggested him to take down his tweet for nearly six months — beginning a number of months earlier than the Aadhaar Act was launched — earlier than it was lastly deleted.

A screenshot of Nilekani's tweet. (BuzzFeed Information redacted the figuring out QR code.)

Consultants mentioned that Nilekani’s leaked Aadhaar quantity leaves him susceptible to id fraud as a result of the Indian authorities requires residents to hyperlink their Aadhaar numbers to important companies like meals subsidies, utilities, financial institution accounts, cellphone numbers, and insurance coverage companies.

“Private information reminiscent of full names, birthdates, and residential addresses ought to at all times be afforded a excessive stage of safety,” cybersecurity professional Troy Hunt advised BuzzFeed Information. “For many individuals, that is data they received’t wish to share past approved events as a result of it may be used to find them or assist in id theft.”

BuzzFeed Information, as an illustration, was capable of finding out the place Nilekani does his banking through the use of a publicly out there, UIDAI-provided service that lets anybody merely punch in an Aadhaar quantity on a cell phone to see the financial institution accounts it’s linked to.

Certainly, regardless of the UIDAI’s repeated denials, Aadhaar numbers leaked on-line have been used to commit id theft in India. In October 2017, as an illustration, Indian police arrested a bunch that used the leaked Aadhaar numbers of practically 300 pensioners to open financial institution accounts of their names and swindled over 4 million Indian rupees value of pension cash over two years, according to reports.

Making issues murkier is the UIDAI’s conflicting messaging about whether or not an Aadhar ID is definitely non-public data or not. After The Tribune published an investigation revealing the way it was capable of purchase unauthorized entry to the demographic particulars of practically 1.2 billion Indians within the Aadhaar database earlier this week, the UIDAI said having somebody’s Aadhaar quantity and demographic data was “not a safety risk” with out additionally having their biometric data. However a day later, the company sent out a tweet cautioning most of the people in regards to the significance of preserving Aadhaar numbers confidential.

“Their declare about demographic data being ineffective with out biometrics is just not true,” mentioned Pranesh Prakash, coverage director on the Centre for Web and Society, a Bangalore-based suppose tank. “Having this type of data out there publicly permits anybody to achieve sufficient information about you to impersonate you, as a result of there are particular particulars like your date of beginning, as an illustration, which might be typically used right now by locations like banks to be sure you are who you say you might be.”

Extra importantly, the Aadhaar Act itself permits for 3 forms of authentication to confirm an individual’s id: matching an Aadhaar quantity with a linked fingerprint or iris, with a one-time code despatched to a linked cellular quantity, or with a linked piece of demographic data like a residential handle.

“The third kind of authentication assumes that an individual’s Aadhaar quantity is non-public,” mentioned Prakash. “Having an Aadhaar quantity out there on the general public web makes this type of authentication unviable.”

Along with this week’s breach, Aadhaar numbers have been made public at varied instances up to now. In November 2017, as an illustration, greater than 200 authorities web sites accidentally exposed 1000’s of individuals’s Aadhaar numbers. In Might, 2017, researchers estimated that leaky authorities web sites have uncovered the information of 130 million individuals. And in March 2017, a authorities company accidentally included the Aadhaar particulars of M. S. Dhoni, the captain of the Indian cricket staff, in a tweet that was pulled down solely when Dhoni’s spouse tweeted angrily at India’s data and expertise minister.

Nilekani’s critics say that he ought to have exercised extra warning earlier than tweeting an image of his Aadhaar card. “He was little doubt conscious that this was delicate data that he was placing out, and it was unhealthy precedent for him to be doing this as essentially the most seen evangelist for Aadhaar,” mentioned Kiran Jonnalagadda, a member of the volunteer-led Web Freedom Basis, which works on privateness, freedom of expression, and internet neutrality points in India.

Nikhil Pahwa, one other member of the Basis and a staunch Aadhaar critic, mentioned that Nilekani’s “mistake reveals that generally, even apparently tech savvy individuals make errors.” Pahwa thinks that the Aadhaar program wants a strategy to revoke or change an Aadhaar quantity — one thing that’s presently unimaginable. “Whereas Mr. Nilekani could not personally face points due to this foolishness,” he mentioned, “spare a thought for widespread individuals whose Aadhaar particulars have been leaked.”

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India's National ID Database With Private Information Of Nearly 1.2 Billion People Was Reportedly Breached

In 2010 India began scanning private particulars like names, addresses, dates of start, cellular numbers, and extra, together with all 10 fingerprints and iris scans of its 1.three billion residents, right into a centralized authorities database known as Aadhaar to create a voluntary identification system. On Wednesday this database was reportedly breached.

The Tribune, a neighborhood Indian newspaper, printed a report claiming its reporters paid Rs. 500 (roughly $eight) to an individual who mentioned his title was Anil Kumar, and who they contacted via WhatsApp. Kumar was capable of create a username and password that gave them entry to the demographic info of almost 1.2 billion Indians who’ve at the moment enrolled in Aadhaar, just by getting into an individual’s distinctive 12-digit Aadhaar quantity. Regional officers working with the Distinctive Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the federal government company answerable for Aadhaar, informed the Tribune the entry was “unlawful,” and a “main nationwide safety breach.”

A second report, printed on Thursday by the Quint, an Indian information web site, revealed that anybody can create an administrator account that lets them entry the Aadhaar database so long as they’re invited by an current administrator.

Enrolling for an Aadhaar quantity isn’t necessary, however for months, India’s authorities has been coercing its citizens to join this system by linking entry to important providers like meals subsidies, financial institution accounts, cellular phone numbers, and medical insurance, amongst different issues, to Aadhaar. Critics have slammed this system for its potential to violate the privateness of Indians and for its potential to show India right into a surveillance state, however that hasn’t stopped each Indian firms and Silicon Valley giants like Uber, Airbnb, Microsoft, and Amazon from determining methods to combine it with their services and products in India.

Hours after the Tribune's report was printed, India’s Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Celebration dismissed it as “faux information.”

Twitter: @BJP4India / By way of Twitter: @BJP4India

In a press release offered to BuzzFeed Information, the UIDAI mentioned it “denied” the Tribune report and that “Aadhaar knowledge together with biometric info is absolutely protected and safe.” The company claimed that the newspaper had misused a database search mechanism obtainable solely to authorities officers and mentioned that it will pursue authorized motion in opposition to folks answerable for the unauthorized entry.

“Claims of bypassing or duping the Aadhaar enrolment system are completely unfounded,” mentioned the assertion. “Aadhaar knowledge is absolutely protected and safe and has sturdy, uncompromised safety. The UIDAI Information Centres are infrastructure of crucial significance and [are] protected accordingly with excessive expertise conforming to the very best requirements of safety and likewise by authorized provisions.”

Nikhil Pahwa, editor of Indian expertise information web site Medianama and a staunch Aadhaar critic, pushed again in opposition to this assertion. “What The Tribune story means that there was unauthorized entry to the Aadhaar database, as a result of somebody was capable of pay for that entry. I'm unsure if the UIDAI is making an attempt to weasel out of this example by saying that this wasn't technically a ‘breach,’” he mentioned.

BuzzFeed Information tracked down Kumar, who mentioned his title was a pseudonym. Kumar informed BuzzFeed Information that he had offered entry to the Aadhaar database to seven different folks in addition to the Tribune reporter within the final week for Rs. 500 a pop however claimed that he didn’t know he was compromising folks’s privateness and breaching the legislation when he did so. “I paid Rs. 6,000 (roughly $95) to an nameless individual in a WhatsApp group I used to be part of to create an username and password to the Aadhaar database for myself,” he mentioned. “I used to be informed that I may then create as many usernames and passwords to entry the database as I wished. I bought every of them to make my Rs. 6,000 again.”

Critics of this system are outraged on the breach. “We’ve been warning for some time in regards to the single entry downside with the design of the [Aadhaar server],” Meghnad S, a spokesperson for, a web-based motion that lets Indians routinely ship emails to their member of Parliament, financial institution, cellular service, and others to protest in opposition to the Aadhaar program, informed BuzzFeed Information.

Meghnad mentioned the Aadhaar Act, which governs this system, imposes penalties on unlawful entry however doesn’t forestall unlawful entry within the first place.

“As soon as the database is breached, the harm is already executed,” he mentioned. “In its hurry to make Aadhaar necessary and never guaranteeing knowledge security, the federal government has allowed shady distributors to take advantage of this knowledge for their very own features.”

Safety researcher Troy Hunt informed BuzzFeed Information that any massive aggregations of private knowledge akin to Aadhaar at all times pose a danger to the privateness of residents, and cited the instance of an individual in a privileged place promoting entry to Australia’s Medicare system final yr.

“The federal government in India might want to assess how a lot knowledge was accessed by unauthorised events, who was accountable, and now what actions ought to be taken to guard impacted events,” Hunt mentioned.

This isn't the primary time that Aadhaar knowledge has been uncovered. In November 2017, over 200 Indian authorities web sites accidentally exposed Aadhaar-linked demographic particulars of an unknown variety of Indians, an RTI question — India's model of the FOIA — revealed. On the time, the UIDAI issued a press release titled: “Aadhaar knowledge is rarely breached or leaked.”

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