The process of Aadhaar authentication. Pic: UIDAI website

The Unique Identification numbers of Aadhaar card holders are being extensively used by government and private agencies for authentication purposes, as we have already seen in an earlier article.

There are 246 registered Authentication User Agencies in India, both government and private, which are helping organisations and individuals in executing the authentication process. In simple terms, they help the organisation that has placed the authentication request, to confirm the identity of a person during hiring, lending loans or while implementing welfare schemes.

But all does not seem well with the Aadhaar authentication process. Concerns have been raised about the privacy and security aspects and, loopholes in the law.

The amended Aadhaar Bill (now, Aadhaar Act) has a clause that allows the UIDAI to respond to any authentication query “with a positive, negative or any other appropriate response.” This move has drawn a lot of criticism from the activist fraternity. They have questioned the government on framing an Act that places the security and privacy of individual citizens at risk.

Even before the Bill was passed, legal scholar Usha Ramanathan had, in an article published in Scroll.in, expressed concern over private agencies using the Aadhaar database for authenticating the identity of an individual.

“Very little was heard about the interest private companies would have in this information data base. It is not until the 2016 Bill was introduced in Lok Sabha that we were told, expressly, that just about any person or company may draw on the Aadhaar system for its purposes. There are no qualifications or limits on who may use it and why. It depends on the willingness of the Unique Identification Authority of India, which is undertaking the project, to let them become a part of the Aadhaar system,” she wrote.

What’s crucial in the entire process is how the government is allowing private players to use  Aadhaar-based information, putting the privacy of Aadhaar-holders at stake. The government is technically allowed to share the Aadhaar information with other agencies, only if the holder has given consent to sharing his information, during enrollment.

The guidelines for recording Aadhaar demographic data states: “Ask resident’s consent to whether it is alright with the resident if the information captured is shared with other organisations for the purpose of welfare services including financial services. Select appropriate circle to capture residents response as - Yes/No.”

In 2011, Citizen Matters had published a report on how people wanting to register for Aadhaar were not asked if they would agree to share their personal information. Citizens seemingly were unaware of the provision for sharing information with a third party and data operators had reportedly not asked them for their consent before marking ‘yes’ for the consent option.

There remains a regulatory vacuum

In less than four months of the enactment of the Aadhaar Act, the number of private agencies using Aadhaar database for identity authentication too has grown long. Amber Sinha, Programme Officer at the Center for Internet and Society expresses concern over the privacy implications that a project of this magnitude would lead to.

“The original idea of Aadhaar was to use it for providing services under welfare schemes. But the Aadhaar Act lets private agencies avail the Aadhaar authentication service. The scope of the Act itself doesn’t envisage sharing the data with private parties, but if any third party wants to authenticate the identity of an individual, they can use the UIDAI repository for the purpose,” he points out.

In the process, Amber says, the CIDR has to send a reply in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ format, for any request seeking to confirm the identity of an individual. The new legislation gives scope for the authorities to respond to a query with a positive, negative or any other appropriate response.  

“The Aadhaar enrollment information includes demographic and biometric details. So at this stage, we do not know what that “other appropriate response” stands for. Further, while there are requirements to take the data subject’s consent under the Act, there is lack of clarity on the oversight mechanisms and control mechanisms in place when a private party collects information for authentication. The UIDAI is yet to frame the rules and the rules will probably determine this. Until the rules are framed, some of the issues will exist in regulatory vacuum,” Amber observes.

Under the current circumstances, Amber says, the responsible thing to do for UIDAI is not to make such services available until the rules are framed.

But why has the Authority then started the authentication process even before the rules have been framed? Assistant Director General of the Authentication and Application Division of UIDAI, Ajai Chandra says the rules when framed will have retrospective effect, from the date the Act was enacted.

Activists have also questioned the UIDAI for allowing private agencies to use and authenticate Aadhaar data, when the Supreme Court has restricted the use of Aadhaar. In its last order dated 15 October 2015, the Apex Court allowed the government to use Aadhaar in implementing selective welfare schemes such as PDS, LPG distribution, MGNREGS, pension schemes, PMJDY and EPFO. It makes no mention about the UIDAI using the Aadhaar data repository to provide services to private agencies.

“When the Supreme Court has restricted the use of Aadhaar number to a few specific government programmes only, how can UIDAI allow the data to be used for any other programmes, let alone by private agencies?” Amber asks.

In a very brief conversation, Reena Saha, Additional DG, UIDAI told Citizen Matters that UIDAI was acting as per the Supreme Court’s order dated October 15th. “We aren’t sharing the data with private agencies,” she said.

‘Authentication happening only with consent’

Srikanth Nadhamuni, CEO of Khosla Labs - a registered Authentication User Agency, who was also the Head of Technologies at UIDAI, rejects the accusations on the security aspect, saying that the authentication system is completely secure and foolproof.

“We have made a secure system so that there is no man in the middle taking the biometric information. The biometric information shared on the application is encrypted and neither the AUA nor the Authentication Service Agency (an intermediary between the AUA and the CIDR) can open it. Both the AUA and ASA will sign on the packet and forward it to the data repository as it is. There is no way that we can figure out what is inside the packet. Once the request reaches the data repository, they will unlock the signatures, run the authentication and reply in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or with an error code,” Srikanth explains. 

ADG Chandra says that at present the CIDR is replying to authentication requests in an “yes/no” format. “We aren’t sharing the data with any agencies. Upon receiving the request for authentication, be it demographic, biometric or one time pin (OTP), a notification is sent to the registered mobile / email address of the Aadhaar holder,” he says. So if the Aadhaar holder has changed the address, phone number, email ID etc after Aadhaar enrollment, he/she should update the data with UIDAI by placing a request online or through post. This will avoid any confusion that may occur during the authentication.

Ajai Chandra further clarifies, “the private agencies seeking authentication (the Authentication User Agency) are not given direct access to the database. On receiving the request, the intermediary Authentication Service Agencies first examine the format of the authentication request. The request is forwarded to the CIDR only if it complies with the format.”

Apart from authentication, the eKYC (Know Your Customer) option also allows companies to retrieve eKYC data of the Aadhaar holder. This data includes photo, name, address, gender and date of birth (excludes mobile number and email ID). But in this case too, “eKYC data can be retrieved only with the consent of the Aadhaar card holder, the person has to be adequately informed about the retrieval and the data cannot be shared with a third party,” says Chandra.

Though Aadhaar Act allows the UIDAI to perform authentication of Aadhaar number, subject to the requesting entity paying the fee, UIDAI at present is providing the service free of cost. “We will provide free service till December 2016 and may levy the fee thereafter,” the ADG says.