The story “Rs. 500, 10 minutes, and you have access to billion Aadhaar details” published by The Tribune on January 3, 2018, created a shockwave among the citizens about UIDAI’s security system. The article written by Rachna Khaira, a journalist at The Tribune, found that the data of millions were available through a WhatsApp group in 10 minutes for just Rs 500.
“I feel principles of natural justice should have been followed when decision to file an FIR was taken. UIDAI should not stifle reporting by shooting the messenger. They can make reporters witnesses in the matter.”
Prashant Mali Bombay High Court lawyer and Cyber Policy Expert
The story quoted, “When contacted, UIDAI officials in Chandigarh expressed shock over the full data being accessed, and admitted it seemed to be a major national security breach. They immediately took up the matter with the UIDAI technical consultants in Bengaluru."
“Sanjay Jindal, Additional Director-General, UIDAI Regional Centre, Chandigarh, accepting that this was a lapse, told The Tribune: “Except the Director-General and I, no third person in Punjab should have a login access to our official portal. Anyone else having access is illegal, and is a major national security breach.”
According to reports, on January 5, a deputy director of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has registered an FIR against the newspaper and its reporter Khaira following her report on how anonymous sellers on WhatsApp were allegedly providing access to Aadhaar numbers for a mere Rs. 500, in 10 minutes. The complaint, also names people who sold unauthorised access details to the journalist.
The reporter has been booked under IPC sections 419 (punishment for cheating under impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery), 471 (using a forged document) and also under sections of the IT Act and the Aadhaar Act.
According to cyber law expert and Bombay High court lawyer, Prashant Mali, “If FIR is filed, then why does UIDAI say there is nothing to worry; and if there is nothing to worry, then why criminalize the reporter? Why no FIR on Rajasthan Government employees who leaked same Aadhaar data from websites? I feel principles of natural justice should have been followed when the decision to file an FIR was taken. Now it is seen as a move to bring chilling effects in matters of Aadhaar reporting. UIDAI should not stifle reporting by shooting the messenger. They can make reporters witnesses in the matter.”
In a statement, The Editor's Guild of India has condemned the police case against the journalist. The statement said, “The Guild condemns UIDAI’s action to have the Tribune reporter booked by the police as it is clearly meant to browbeat a journalist whose investigation on the matter was of great public interest. It is unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press. Instead of penalising the reporter, UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public."
They also demanded the concerned Union Ministry to intervene and have the cases against the reporter withdrawn apart from conducting an impartial investigation into the matter.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, President and Manoj Mitta, Director of the Foundation for Media Professionals jointly issued a statement on January 7, 2018 and said, “The booking of a criminal case against a reporter of the Tribune for exposing a data breach marks a disturbing trend. In less than a year, it is the fourth reported instance of free speech being assaulted in the context of the much touted Aadhaar. What is even more worrisome is the repeated misuse of provisions in the Aadhaar Act 2016 to deter journalists and other whistle-blowers from uncovering any of the problems associated with this project when it is under challenge in the Supreme Court.”
“The Guild condemns UIDAI’s action to have the Tribune reporter booked by the police as it is clearly meant to browbeat a journalist whose investigation on the matter was of great public interest. It is unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press."
The Editor's Guild of India
After the news about the FIR went viral, many Indian and foreign thought leaders started reacting against the FIR. They demanded that the reporter should be awarded, and not rewarded with an FIR. Many people have criticised and are expecting the courts to quash the FIR registered against the reporter.
Here are a couple of reactions on micro-blogging site Twitter:
The journalists exposing the #Aadhaar breach deserve an award, not an investigation. If the government were truly concerned for justice, they would be reforming the policies that destroyed the privacy of a billion Indians. Want to arrest those responsible? They are called @UIDAI. https://t.co/xyewbK2WO2
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) January 8, 2018
Aadhaar details of over a billion people available for Rs. 500?
Oh No! The government may now try to fix this by banning 500 rupee notes.https://t.co/HZjDTsSB0P
— Ramesh Srivats (@rameshsrivats) January 4, 2018
How many FIRs will take to fix every leak in Aadhaar, especially frauds caused by govt's insistence: compulsory linking to bank accounts? pic.twitter.com/BS4C0D89Ny
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) January 9, 2018
The FIR against The Tribune is the latest in the series of attempts by the BJP govt to coerce, threaten and intimidate honest sections of the press. We condemn all such attempts and will oppose the govt in its sinister designs against the press. pic.twitter.com/maHBIBwwf9
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) January 8, 2018
Under compulsion, millions of persons have already shared Aadhaar number with many service providers. New security layer is like locking the stable after horses have bolted.
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) January 11, 2018
A journalist is hauled up for reporting alleged truth about malfunctioning & misuse of Aadhar. Are we living in a Banana Republic? What kind of "justice" is this? Is there only politics of vendetta? Even public is being victimised for coming out honestly for society & the nation.
— Shatrughan Sinha (@ShatruganSinha) January 8, 2018