Centre for Internet & Society

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has introduced a system of virtual authentication for citizens enrolled on its database and limited the access available to service providers in a move aimed at allaying widespread concern over security breaches that have dogged the world's largest repository of citizen data.

The article was published in Economic Times on January 11, 2018.

In one of the most significant security upgrades by the eightyear old agency, the UIDAI announced the creation of a "virtual ID" which can be used in lieu of the 12-digit Aadhaar number at the time of authentication for any service.

The UIDAI has also limited access to stored personal information and mandated the use of unique tokens through which authenticating agencies can access required data. It claims that the measures will strengthen privacy and also prevent combining of databases linked to Aadhaar.

ET was the first to report about the UIDAI plan to introduce virtual numbers to address security concerns in its November 20 edition last year.

A top government official told ET that UIDAI has been working on this technology since July of 2016. "This is going to be one of the biggest innovations ever, people can change their virtual ID whenever they want or after every authentication or every 10 seconds." He added that this will silence most critics of Aadhaar.

"The Aadhaar number being the permanent ID for life, there is need to provide a mechanism to ensure its continued use while optimally protecting the collection and storage in many databases," the UIDAI said in a notification on Wednesday while announcing the new measures.

More Needed to be Done: Experts

"The collection and storage of Aadhaar number by various entities has heightened privacy concerns," it stated.

Under the new regime, for every Aadhaar number, the authority will issue a 16-digit virtual identity number which will be "temporary and revocable at any time."

This virtual ID can be generated only by the individual Aadhaar holder and can be replaced by a new one after a minimum validity period.

In addition, while some Authentication User Agencies (AUA) — categorised by the UIDAI as 'Global' — will have access to all the details or the e-KYC of a specific Aadhaar number, all other agencies will only have access to limited data through the virtual identity number.

"So this is a very very significant thing and I think this is a great step forward," said Nandan Nilekani, former chairman of UIDAI, in an interview to television channel ET Now on Wednesday.

Nilekani, widely regarded as the architect of Aadhaar, said that through these new security measures the possibility of the Aadhaar number being stored in many databases also goes away.

It will make a huge difference in allaying the concerns and it really "eliminates all the arguments against Aadhaar," he told ET Now.

Last week, Chandigarh-based daily The Tribune reported that demographic data from the Aadhaar database could be accessed for as little as Rs 500. The expose led to the UIDAI barring over 5,000 officials from accessing its portal through login ids and passwords. It also introduced biometric authentication for future access, as reported by ET on Tuesday.

The widespread fear of misuse of demographic data is heightened by the fact that India still does not have a data protection legislation. The country's apex court is scheduled to resume its hearing on the validity of the Aadhaar scheme next week on January 17.

Kamlesh Bajaj, former CEO of the Data Security Council of India said by limiting access to only those agencies mandated by law, the UIDAI has ensured that "someone will not be able to combine database. It's a positive development in my view and technologically feasible," he said

Expert Views

Privacy experts and activists were of the view that more needs to be done to ensure foolproof security for critical personal information.

The Bengaluru-based research organisation Centre for Internet and Society has suggested that all the Aadhaar seeding with all the existing databases should be revoked. "Until then, it is one step ahead and but not enough," said Sunil Abraham, executive director of CIS.

To enable a speedy rollout of the new safety standards, the UIDAI plans to release the required technical updates by March 1, 2018 and all the Authentication agencies using the Aadhaar database will need to upgrade their systems latest by June 1, 2018.

In its circular, UIDAI has also said that agencies not allowed to use or store the Aadhaar number should make changes inside their systems to replace Aadhaar number within their databases with UID Token.

"Unless there is complete revocation, some database with Aadhaar numbers will still float around and secondly there is no reason why some data controllers should be trusted, the tokenisation should be implemented for everyone," said CIS's Abraham.

The circular said that authentication using virtual ID will be performed in the same manner as the Aadhaar number and people can generate or retrieve their virtual numbers (in case they forget) at the UIDAI's resident portal, Aadhaar Enrolment Centers, or through the Aadhaar mobile application.

In addition to the virtual numbers, UIDAI will also provide "unique tokens" to each agency against an Aadhaar number to ensure that they are to establish the uniqueness of beneficiaries in their database such as for distributing government subsidies under cooking gas or scholarships.

Activists argue that most service providers — even digital ones — work with a paper ID card system. "They don't cross-check it with the UIDAI database. UIDAI is not issuing virtual ids for paper cards, and a new category of so called Global AUAs are exempted from using the virtual ids, so citizens are not protected almost anywhere that they need to use Aadhaar," said Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, who said the change doesn't help enough to secure the ecosystem.