NSA allegedly using Aadhaar to spy on India
India’s new Bharatiya Janata Party government has come under pressure to scrap Aadhaar, the program which aims to enroll all of the country’s residents through biometrics.
The Left Front, an alliance of Indian left-wing parties which includes Communists, has alleged that the country’s biometric database, which is used to provide social services and reduce welfare fraud, has been utilized for foreign espionage.
In a scathing letter to incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Communist Party of India argues that the United States has been using an information exchange agreement to obtain biometric data about Indian citizens. The letter asks the new government to order an inquiry into the alleged information sharing arrangement.
The letter alleges biometric data collected in India was given to the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. and that there is “widespread apprehension” within India’s national security establishment about the security of data collected by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for the production of Aadhaar cards.
Aadhaar currently has combined enrollment of approximately 850 million people, with 630 million Aadhaar numbers now reportedly generated. The previous Congress Party government introduced the program in order to distribute 12-digit identity cards to provide better access to social programs.
The Communists state in their letter that the country’s Intelligence Bureau warned the government in 2012 about security concerns arising from the use of foreign vendors on the Aadhaar project.
The letter notes: “UIDAI engages private companies, both Indian and foreign, for collecting biometric data including iris scan and fingerprints. These foreign vendors collect and store the biometric data of our people. But the government didn’t heed to the concern expressed by the IB. Now the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed that U.S. intelligence was collecting biometric data of people from many countries including India. Apart from the security, this is a gross violation of the privacy of our people.
The letter continues: “For ensuring the privacy of the people and security of our country, an urgent relook on the UIDAI project is essential. The government must ensure that the data already collected are not shared with foreign spy agencies. The Aadhaar project, which does not have the backing of law must be scrapped.”
After receipt of the letter, Prime Minister Modi announced that the standing cabinet committee that examines decisions concerning the UIDAI would be scrapped in an effort for “more governance” and “less government”. The national government now led by Modi notes that on a go-forward basis, Aadhaar issues will now be handled by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs.
As reported previously in BiometricUpdate.com, the Aadhaar project was sharply criticized by the Bharatiya Janata Party during the recent election campaign as a fraudulent scheme devised to financially benefit Congress politicians. The BJP in the past has characterized the biometric system as a “political gimmick” and has questioned whether the system adequately addresses control of migrants and national security concerns.
Most recently, the Aadhaar system has run into major problems with private companies that enroll Indian citizens into the program. Private businesses that are engaged in Aadhaar enrollment are protesting the high penalties being levied on them by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), due to enrollment errors. In response, the Aadhaar Enrollment Agencies Association (AEAA), the lobby group representing the businesses has warned that they will be forced to stop work across the country and seek legal action to address rising fines.
The system has also encountered a serious number of problems including Indian banks that are resisting processing Aadhaar subsidies and India’s Supreme Court ruling that Aadhaar numbers are not mandatory for receiving government services.
India’s new home minister Rajnath Singh was scheduled to examine new policy options to address the Aadhaar system this week.