Special Report

No Aadhaar for media panic

Indeed, the Aadhaar is a project of Himalayan proportions. It is undoubtedly the biggest digital platform any government anywhere in the world could be proud of handling without, in relative terms, few glitches. To manage a unique identification number for over a billion people, and to be able to maintain its security and sanctity is no mean feat. Those who manage the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) deserve to be encouraged that despite much criticism, some of it undeservedly harsh and ill-informed, it has carried on, making improvements wherever possible and generally eliminating glitches and grievances faced by  the users.

Of course, there are several privacy concerns, especially when Aadhaar is being extended for delivery of more and more government and semi-government services and subsidies. Given the ever-mounting threat of terrorist violence and other gruesome crimes, as also the white collar financial sector frauds, Aadhaar has come to be the first line of defense against any sort of wrong-doing. In the normal course, those with little to hide would not make much to-do about the loss of privacy on account of Aadhaar being compulsorily linked to a number of services, including bank accounts and mobile phones. Both the banks and the phone companies as well as their patrons would feel secure. Though the matter is before the Supreme Court, which has extended the deadline for the compulsory use of Aadhaar till March 31, by when, it is assumed, the court would have disposed of various challenges, most citizens would find not fuss much over the alleged loss of privacy.

Indeed, the users of smart phones probably end up allowing the phone manufacturers to gather far more personal information than the poor cousin UIDAI might do in a life-time. Anyway, in the trade-off between safety and security and the privacy of such innocuous information as the residential address, parent’s name, and other such harmless info, a vast majority would settle for the former. Superimposing high-fluting concerns from the developed world on a people still struggling to emerge from the lingering influences of the medieval/feudal times seems a frivolous attempt. Yes, privacy is a fundamental right but the fear that an evil State will violate it without let or hindrance for no particular reason other than that it is per se perverse is a bogus argument. Any State, whether in a developed or an under-developed country, has the means, essentially lawful means, to find all that it wants to find should it set its mind to do so. In short, let us not kill a hugely beneficial project for the sake of over-blown concerns about privacy. Of course, if more is needed to firewall security and sanctity of Aadhaar data, the UIDAI should not lose a moment. No unauthorised access should be allowed either to official or non-official agencies. Privacy of citizens being sacrosanct, UIDAI must make operations foolproof against fraudulent breach or hacking.

The controversy over the alleged breach of security of UIDAI is back in focus, thanks to a report in a Chandigarh newspaper which claimed that it was able to ‘enter any Aadhaar number in the portal’ and get all the particulars submitted by the concerned individual. The report claimed that a payment of mere Rs 500 to an agent led her to break into the Aadhaar systems. Of course, the reporter’s claims would have to be taken with more than pinch of salt. If it was so easy, they ought to have published the Aadhaar data of the country’s top functionaries to highlight the holes in the UIDAI systems. It is regrettable that even the alleged minor breach of the grievance addressal system – and not the biometric database – has attracted an FIR against the newspaper.

Though the media increasingly displays a deplorable herd instinct, not unlike the lower court lawyers who go on strike at the drop of a hat, seeing every response from the authorities as a threat to the freedom of the press, it would have been immensely better had the UIDAI, instead of lodging an FIR, had sought cooperation of the newspaper to get at the root of the problem as reported by it. Maybe the newspaper was guilty of blowing out of all proportions a localized racket in the misuse of the grievance redressal site, but the media too went overboard in making it out as if the FIR constituted a blow to the well-entrenched right of the freedom of the press. A sense of perspective instead of a display of blind trade unionism would stand the media in good stead. It should stop calling wolf at the first sign of a reasonable question from a State authority. Meanwhile, the UIDAI owes it to itself to publicize the actual breach, if any, that the newspaper claims took place in its system. Its credibility is too vital for a newspaper reporter to be allowed to undermine it without substantial evidence.


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