Centre for Internet & Society

For seven years, India’s government has been scanning the irises and fingerprints of its citizens into a massive database. The once voluntary program was intended to fix the country’s corrupt welfare schemes, but critics worry about its Orwellian overtones.

The blog post by Pranav Dixit was published by BuzzFeedNews on April 4, 2017. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

An abridged version of the blog post containing Sunil Abraham's quotes are reproduced below:

“You can’t change your fingerprints”

Sunil Abraham, the CIS director, calls himself a “technological critic” of the Aadhaar platform. For years, he’s been warning of the security risks associated with a centralized repository of the demographic and biometric details of a billion or so people.

“Aadhaar is a sitting duck,” Abraham told BuzzFeed News. That’s not an unreasonable assessment considering that India’s track record for protecting people’s private data is far from stellar. Earlier this year, for example, a security researcher discovered a website that was leaking the Aadhaar demographic data of more than 500,000 minors. The website was subsequently shut down, but the incident raised questions about Aadhaar’s security protocols — particularly those around data shared with third parties.

Abraham’s concerns are not without global precedent. In 2012, Ecuadorian police jailed blogger Paul Moreno for breaking into the country’s online national identity database and registering himself as Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa. In April 2016, hackers posted a database containing names, national IDs, addresses, and birth dates of more than 50 million Turkish citizens, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; later that month, Mexico’s entire voter database —  over 87 million national IDs, addresses, and more — was leaked onto Amazon’s cloud servers by as-yet-untraced sources; and in the Philippines, more than 55 million voters had their private information  —  including fingerprints   — released on the Dark Web.

“When this database is hacked — and it will be — it will be because someone breaches the computer security that protects the computers actually using the data.”

“What is the price that we pay as a nation if our database of over a billion people  —  complete with all 10 fingerprints and iris scans —  leaks?” Abraham asked. The consequences, he said, will be permanent. Unlike a password, which you can reset at any time, your biometrics, if compromised, are the ultimate privacy breach. “You can’t change your fingerprints.”

The UIDAI claims that the Aadhaar database is protected using the “highest available public key cryptography encryption (PKI-2048 and AES-256)” and would take “billions of years” to crack.

“Encryption like this doesn’t typically get broken, it gets circumvented,” security researcher Troy Hunt told BuzzFeed News. “For example, the web application that sits in front of it is compromised and data is retrieved after decryption.” Or alternatively, he said, the encryption key itself is compromised. “Naturally, governments will offer all sorts of assurances on these things, but the simple, immutable fact is that once large volumes are centralized like this, there is a heightened risk of security incidents and of the data consequently being lost or exposed,” he added.

Cryptographer and cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier echoed Hunt’s assessment. “When this database is hacked — and it will be — it will be because someone breaches the computer security that protects the computers actually using the data,” he said. “They will go around the encryption.”

Nilekani — who did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ requests for comment — recently dismissed concerns around the project’s privacy implications as “hand-waving.” In an interview with the Economic Times, he repeatedly stressed how secure Aadhaar’s “advanced encryption technology” was. “I can categorically say that it’s the most secure system in India and among the most secure systems in the world,” he said.

Abraham is unconvinced by such assurances. He believes Aadhaar fundamentally changes the equation between a citizen and a state. “There’s a big difference between you identifying yourself to the government, and the government identifying who you are,” he said.

Aadhaar’s opponents say the program’s implementation has left India’s poorest people with no choice but to use it. “If you link people’s food subsidies, wages, bank accounts, and other crucial things to Aadhaar, you hit them where it hurts the most,” Ramanathan argued. “You leave them with no choice but to sign up.”

“Can you imagine if the United States passed a law that said that every person who wished to get food stamps would need their fingerprints registered in a government-owned database?” a journalist turned Aadhaar activist who did not wished to be named told BuzzFeed News. “Imagine what a scandal that would be.”

For Nilekani, such criticism is just overstatement and drama. “I think this so-called anti-Aadhaar lobby is really just a small bunch of liberal elites who are in some echo chamber,” he said during a recent interview with Indian business news channel ET Now. “The reality is that a billion people are using Aadhaar. A lot of the accusations are just delusional. Aadhaar is not a system for surveillance. [The critics] live in a bubble and are not connected to reality.”

Abraham laughed off Nilekani’s comments. “The Unique Identification Authority of India will become the monopoly provider of identification and authentication services in India,” he said. “That sounds like a centrally planned communist state to me. I don’t know which left liberal elites he’s talking about.”