Centre for Internet & Society

It is a lot less scary registering for Aadhaar in 2019 than it was in 2010, given how the authentication modalities have since evolved.

The article was published in Business Standard on January 2, 2019.

Last November, a global committee of lawmakers from nine countries the UK, Canada, Ireland, Brazil, Argentina, Singapore, Belgium, France and Latvia summoned Mark Zuckerberg to what they called an “international grand committee” in London. Mr. Zuckerberg was too spooked to show up, but Ashkan Soltani, former CTO of the FTC was among those who testified against Facebook. He said “in the US, a lot of the reticence to pass strong policy has been about killing the golden goose” referring to the innovative technology sector. Mr. Soltani went on to argue that “smart legislation will incentivise innovation”. This could be done either intentionally or unintentionally by governments. For example, a poorly thought through blocking of pornography can result in innovative censorship circumvention technologies. On other occasions, this can happen intentionally. I hope to use my inaugural column in these pages to provide an Indian example of such intentional regulatory innovation.

Eight years ago, almost to this date, my colleague Elonnai Hickok wrote an open letter to the Parliamentary Finance Committee on what was then called the UID or Unique Identity. She compared Aadhaar to the digital identity project started by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 2001. Like the Vajpayee administration which was working in response to the Kargil War, she advocated a decentralised authentication architecture using smart cards based on public key cryptography. Last year, even before the five-judge constitutional bench struck down Section 57 of the Aadhaar Act, the UIDAI preemptively responded to this regulatory development by launching offline Aadhaar cards. This was to be expected especially since from the A.P. Shah Committee report, the Puttaswamy Judgment, the B.N. Srikrishna Committee consultation paper, report and bill, the principle of “privacy by design” was emerging as a key Indian regulatory principle in the domain of data protection.

The introduction of the offline Aadhaar mechanism eliminates the need for biometrics during authentication. I have previously provided 11 reasons why biometrics is inappropriate technology for e-governance applications by democratic governments, and this comes as a massive relief for both human rights activists and security researchers. Second, it decentralises authentication, meaning that there is a no longer a central database that holds a 360-degree view of all incidents of identification and authentication. Third, it dramatically reduces the attack surface for Aadhaar numbers, since only the last four digits remain unmasked on the card. Each data controller using Aadhaar will have to generate his/her own series of unique identifiers to distinguish between residents. If those databases leak or get breached, it won’t tarnish the credibility of Aadhaar or the UIDAI to the same degree. Fourth, it increases the probability of attribution in case a data breach were to occur; if the breached or leaked data contains identifiers issued by a particular data controller, it would become easier to hold them accountable and liable for the associated harms. Fifth, unlike the previous iteration of the Aadhaar “card”, on which the QR code was easy to forge and alter, this mechanism provides for integrity and tamper detection because the demographic information contained within the QR code is digitally signed by the UIDAI. Finally, it retains the earlier benefit of being very cheap to issue, unlike smart cards.

Thanks to the UIDAI, the private sector is also being forced to implement privacy by design. Previously, since everyone was responsible for protecting Aadhaar numbers, nobody was. Data controllers would gladly share the Aadhaar number with their contractors, that is, data processors, since nobody could be held responsible. Now, since their own unique identifiers could be used to trace liability back to them, data controllers will start using tokenisation when they outsource any work that involves processing of the collected data. Skin in the game immediately breeds more responsible behaviour in the ecosystem.

The fintech sector has been rightfully complaining about regulatory and technological uncertainty from last year’s developments. This should be addressed by developing open standards and free software to allow for rapid yet secure implementation of these changes. The QR code standard itself should be an open standard developed by the UIDAI using some of the best practices common to international standard setting organisations like the World Wide Web Consortium, Internet Engineers Task Force and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. While the UIDAI might still choose to take the final decision when it comes to various technological choices, it should allow stakeholders to make contributions through comments, mailing lists, wikis and face-to-face meetings. Once a standard has been approved, a reference implementation must be developed by the UIDAI under liberal licences, like the BSD licence that allows for both free software and proprietary software derivative works. For example, a software that can read the QR code as well as send and receive the OTP to authenticate the resident. This would ensure that smaller fintech companies with limited resources can develop secure systems.

Since Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud’s excellent dissent had no other takers on the bench, holdouts like me must finally register for an Aadhaar number since we cannot delay filing taxes any further. While I would still have preferred a physical digital artefact like a smart card (built on an open standard), I must say it is a lot less scary registering for Aadhaar in 2019 than it was in 2010, given how the authentication modalities have since evolved.

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