Forget Aadhaar, when did our phone number become mandatory for everything?

Courtesy: A helpful forehead model available nearby, who wasn’t harmed during production

Compared to the rest of the world, Indians assign particularly little value to privacy. Maybe its because we are all used to living in joint families where everyone gets into everyone’s business. In most Indian families, you aren’t allowed to lock your bedroom door till you’re married. And you’re probably not allowed to lock it again after you have a socially acceptable number of kids, so I guess it shouldn’t surprise anybody that we don’t give a rat’s ass about the government or companies tracking us everywhere. In fact, when a company provides us an option to put a tracker on us through which they can watch us day and night to help us reach where we want or to stay safe from criminals, we all get a warm and fuzzy feeling we haven’t got since the days when our mom used to feed us khichdi and tuck us into bed safely. This is of course why the government and mobile companies can blast us with ‘link Aadhaar’ messages through every online and offline channel possible without sparking public outrage. There is one thing that can terrify Indians about the implications of losing privacy though, and that’s the prospect of actually having to pay taxes. As a result, the prospect of linking Aadhaar to all bank accounts and investment accounts have suddenly made many people seek their fundamental right to privacy for the first time.

You would think the newly privacy aware tax dodging populace would now care about other infringements on their privacy but if you want evidence that isn’t happening, just go buy groceries in any big supermarket or to the mall. The cashier scans the bar code on everything in your cart and then matter-of-factly asks for your phone number. If you ask why, the responses range from a puzzled ‘for billing sir’ to ‘loyalty points’ or ‘warranty’. If you look around, you’ll notice that pretty much everyone immediately gives it.The KFC outlet at an airport domestic terminal asked to scan my boarding pass, saying ‘for customer service’ when I asked why. I wonder what service the customer will get from handing over all that data? A discount? Decathlon asks for your number to keep all your purchases linked to your account and provide warranty using just that information. Some would argue that some of these are legitimate use cases and that you are free to say no. I would agree if you always had that option but worryingly, a phone number is now mandatory in the billing software systems used in many places.

I first encountered this when I bought a small table from a local furniture shop. There was this sweet old man who ran the shop who asked for my phone number. As usual I said no. He wasn’t really keen on forcing me to give it but he just could not figure out a way to generate bill without it. To his credit, he tried for a while and told me the billing software on his computer is just not generating a bill unless he enters a phone number. That’s the only time I remember giving my number for no real value in return. I was hoping that was an isolated case but recently, more and more shops have such billing systems. When you refuse to give your number, they usually just enter a random 10 digit number instead to generate the bill. Some poor guy will get spammed but at least you were able to make a purchase and get the bill without giving your number and identity. The other day, I ran into an even more invasive billing system at a well known medical shop chain. Since I get a tax break for medical bills, I asked the guy to give me a bill in my name and as usual he asked for my phone number. I said no and he got very cocky about it, saying he can’t make the bill otherwise. I told him to enter whatever number he pleases but he insisted that I give a number. So I told him to enter 987654321 but he protested that it is not 10 digits so I asked him to add a 0 at the end. After gritting his teeth at the obvious deception, he entered the number and said sorry, that number is already linked to some guy called Chandra so the bill can only be generated in his name. I started off cursing Chandra in my head but then realized that Chandra is a kindred soul who values his privacy and has a sense of humor to boot, but I still didn’t want a bill in his name. Finally I managed to enter some variation of the number which wasn’t entered in his stupid system to get a bill, but as I walked away the cashier kept giving dire warnings about how I’ll need to remember that number if I need to exchange the medicine.

When did this nonsense become so mainstream and why do so many people give their numbers without a pause? For all our protests against Aadhaar and celebrations for the Supreme Court declaring that privacy is a fundamental right, none of us think about how invasive it is to require a phone number for every purchase. There is little or no regulation governing what they can do with that data. If all these shops sell this data to a common data aggregator, they can easily make a profile of everywhere you’ve been and everything you’ve bought and sell that to anyone. If you’re still not creeped out, think about a scenario where you are trying to take a health insurance policy and the insurance company already knows what medicines you buy and how frequently, and also know how often you buy whiskey or cigarettes. Good luck with your premiums or even getting a policy.

There should be some kind of regulation that prohibits shops and companies from making it mandatory to get your phone number for things that do not require it and especially not for billing. By some far chance if there is a person who chooses not to keep a mobile phone, can’t they buy medicine? I’m going to try writing to the authorities about this (provided I can find who they are) but in the meantime, let’s all take a collective stand against this and stop putting our phone numbers on our foreheads.

Does anyone know if there is a way to find out if 9876543210 is really registered to anybody? If not, let’s make that a code to mark our protest. Like the NOTA option in elections. Maybe making their databases useless will knock some sense into the heads of whoever makes these decisions.

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