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.

Continue reading “Forget Aadhaar, when did our phone number become mandatory for everything?”

Why on earth do we need to update our credit cards with Aadhaar numbers?

I’ve been meaning to write about Aadhaar for a while but never got around to it. But then today morning I got this message from my bank.

credit card

We have already linked our PAN cards with Aadhaar. Credit card companies already do their own checks to ensure you are credit worthy. No one gives you money without checking if you can pay it back. So how is this justified in any way? I posted this on Reddit today morning and of course Younews.in and the India Community Digest Facebook page lifted it by evening and acted like its their own post without ever crediting the India sub-reddit as usual. Anyway, on the original Reddit thread, there were over a 100 comments with different viewpoints. Let me summarize some of the views supporting this move and give my thoughts on each:

1. It helps detect fraud:

My response: No doubt it will. But the question is if the benefit outweighs the risks. I don’t think so. How about if I said we should give the keys to our front doors to the government or tap all our phones to make sure the cops can detect any wrong doing? The problem with these things is that you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there will be some criminals you can find and catch by making everything and everyone track-able, but such a surveillance system can also be misused against everyday people, journalists, whistleblowers and anyone who gets on the wrong side of the ‘system’, whether its their fault or not. Who will watch the watchers?

2. This is just to verify your identity. Credit card companies use this to check who you are. The info is not collected by the government

My response: I’m not saying the government is building a database of your credit card transactions with Aadhaar numbers. Not yet at least. But, when you link your Aadhaar to your credit card, bank accounts, phone number and so on, what’s to stop the government or someone in power from asking credit card companies for transaction data with the Aadhaar number filled in and search for someones Aadhaar number to track all their purchases? Or do the same with mobile number to track all their calls? Are there safeguards in place against such things? Has this been thought through? At the pace at which Aadhaar is being seeded into everything, I really doubt anyone is taking the time to plug vulnerabilities in each one. Can we trust that banks and credit card companies will keep the data safe? There have been so many cases where I applied for a credit card and immediately started getting spam calls for all kinds of financial products from every company. There’s obviously leaks, especially in PSU banks. How do you make sure an employee doesn’t leak Aadhaar number along with phone number of target customers? What if an insurance company got that data and started using it to decide whether you should be given a health care coverage policy? Same question about telecom companies- what systems do they have in place to control all this? Even if some of them do have systems in place, do all of them have them? Who is checking the quality of each system? What legal protections do we have against such misuse of data?

3. In the U.S.A, social security numbers need to be given for credit card

My response: The U.S.A is not the panacea for all evils. What they do there is not necessarily the best way to do things. They have major problems with burgeoning domestic surveillance themselves. Lets try to stop our country from becoming a surveillance state instead of saying its OK if other countries have already done it. And if we are comparing, the U.S chose not to link things like fingerprints and biometric data to social security numbers due to privacy risks. Why aren’t we emulating that too

My biggest problem with all of this that none of this matches the official ‘Aadhaar is voluntary, not mandatory’ slogan. How is it not mandatory when you cannot have a bank account, mobile connection or credit card without it? How many things will require this before we start calling it mandatory? Will we one day need it to eat out, buy food or get treatment? Will we call it ‘mandatory’ only once someone says it is mandatory to have Aadhaar to breathe? Or will we still say ‘well, you don’t HAVE to live. Its your choice’?

I’m not saying a national system to authenticate citizen’s ID has no merits. Using it to make sure government welfare goes to the right people seems fair, although there has to be mechanisms to address cases where your fingerprints have faded and things like that. Using it to get things the government is offering for free is still fair. But I have to add a disclaimer that I’m not sure it is. It looks like that to me but if someone had put me in charge of deciding whether to make it mandatory for government welfare, I would try listening to people who caution against it instead of thinking whatever idea I had was sent down from heaven by the gods.

Seeding Aadhaar into every aspect of life is a sure fire way of making sure our lives are completely ruled by a number. I don’t think it is even possible to build in safeguards against misuse given the current scope of usage. Limit usage, build safeguards and expand only if you can figure out safeguards for expanded use. Don’t act like everything is a nail just because you have a hammer to hit them with.

If you want to see the original Reddit discussion, here’s the link: https://www.reddit.com/r/india/comments/7csv46/why_do_we_have_to_link_credit_cards_to_aadhaar/

I’ll be writing more about Aadhaar on this blog from now as well.