If you’ve paid the slightest bit of attention to news about Aadhaar, you’ll have heard about a series of leaks of Aadhaar data from multiple government websites. Some of the latest government websites to leak Aadhaar and demographic data, were the Jharkhand Directorate of Social Security and the Kerala government’s pension department.
Shockingly, a report by The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) revealed that the Aadhaar details along with demographic details and financial information of around 135 million people in the country has been leaked by four government portals. And this could just be the tip of the iceberg.
However, the public response to these revelations has been muted. The government and the UIDAI, the authority behind Aadhaar, have retreated behind the defence that only Aadhaar numbers have been leaked, and not biometric details, and hence there is no major problem.
However, experts warn that Aadhaar numbers by themselves pose a sufficient risk when leaked, and that the UIDAI has been consistently underplaying the risks of such leaks and overplaying the security of biometric identification.
Amber Sinha, who co-authored the CIS report, points out that it’s not just Aadhaar numbers that have been leaked on government websites, but also demographic information as well as financial details. Various such bits of data can be aggregated by fraudsters and used to steal identities and commit financial fraud online or through phones.
“We see a lot of examples of social engineering techniques where fraudsters collect data from various sources and impersonate people,” he says. The report points out that one of the most common techniques is to call persons impersonating bank officials requiring sensitive information, and provide Aadhaar and demographic details to make the bid for this information convincing.
Amber also points out that in online and phone verifications, it is possible to impersonate other persons with such information.
“Somebody can call the bank pretending to be me, and he could also authenticate himself as me if he has all the data about me. The bank will ask him some four questions and if he has all that information, then the bank has no reason to believe that he is not me,” he explains.
Co-Founder of HasGeek, Kiran Jonnalagadda, an active voice on net neutrality, freedom of speech and privacy, points out that one of the main problems is that the Aadhaar system assumes biometric verification in every transaction, but Aadhaar cards are often used as identity documents without biometrics particularly for many non-financial transactions.
“Somebody can apply for a SIM card with your Aadhaar number, and if the place that is issuing the SIM card didn't do a biometric verification then your card is good enough, because now they can do anything they want in your name,” Kiran said. In such cases, he points out, impersonation is almost ridiculously easy because the Aadhaar card, just a colour printout with no security features, can be faked by almost anyone.
He points out that, particularly in cases of online verifications, the problem of fraud is acutely heightened. “The thing is that if they have your number and your demographic details, if the government does a verification online, the details will match. Which means that the ID is not fake. It's just that you didn't actually authorise any of this. In a perfect world, everybody would do biometrics. The problem is that that does not exist right now.”
One of the major flaws of the current security practices of Aadhaar is that the UIDAI only takes responsibility for the security of data stored within its Central Identities Data Repository. However, explains Amber, over the last five years, the UIDAI has proactively seeded Aadhaar data across multiple government databases. However, the UIDAI has not exercised strict disclosure controls on these government databases, and there are no clear standards for publicity of information.
The CIS report points to the example of the Andhra Pradesh portal of the NREGA, which carries information on Aadhaar numbers and disbursal amounts on a simple text file, with no encryption or other security measures. The report argues that this system could easily be exploited to transfer illegal sums of money into these accounts, making beneficiaries liable for them.
Importantly, Amber points out that the recent publications of Aadhaar details cannot properly be called leaks. A leakage occurs, he points out, when information is treated as secret and stored accordingly and then breached from the outside or leaked by abusing access.
“Here the websites that we looked at are designed in such a way that anybody without any technical knowledge can access information. They are available for download as spreadsheets, how much simpler could it get?” he asks.
Even with the much-vaunted infallibility of biometric verification, experts warn, there are some scarily large loopholes present. While the UIDAI regularly goes to town with the claim that the biometric data stored in the CIDR is well protected behind multiple firewalls, detractors point out that biometric data collected at each transaction point is not similarly secure.
Other kinds of financial transactions such as card transactions , explains Amber, use two-factor authentication (a physical card and a pin number or card details and an OTP, for instance). With Aadhaar, however, authentication is possible with just biometrics.
This is risky because biometric data is not duplication-proof. When biometric data is collected for authentication, he says, there are ways in which this data can be stored for re-use. “At the end of the day, the way the biometric authentication works is by comparing two images. There is a copy of an image which is collected at the time of enrolment which is stored by the UIDAI, and every time you authenticate yourself you give a fresh image. As far as the CIDR is concerned, it has nothing to do with how that image is being created at that stage,” says Amber.
This can and has led to what is called a “replay attack”, where stored biometric images are used to complete transactions without the presence of the actual owner of the biometric data. This is what happened in the case involving Axis Bank, Suvidha Infoserve and eMudhra in February.
Such situations arise, says Kiran, because Aadhaar confuses two very separate functions–authentication (establishing that I am who I am) and authorisation (certifying that I want an action done in my name). “It’s the difference between signing a cheque and showing a photo ID to prove that you are who you are,” explains Kiran. The problem with biometrics is that both processes are combined in one, and there is nothing to verify that the person to whom the biometrics belongs to is actually present for each transaction.
“The larger problem is that the UIDAI constantly plays a game of denial and catch up. They keep pretending like other people are stupid and their system will never be broken. And other people keep pointing out that they've forgotten the most obvious things about security in any information system. They are currently in denial mode, where they insist such things are not possible until after it happens, and then they say oh it's happening, let's go do something to fix it,” Kiran says.
What’s more, Kiran and Amber point out that biometrics can even be physically duplicated. On iris scans, Amber argues, “Now, with a lot of CCTV cameras, if their resolution is high enough it is possible to capture things like an iris scan. So the means for biometric authentication can be used covertly, and that is a technological truth,” he asserts.
Duplicating fingerprints, says Kiran is even easier, pointing out to attendance fraud carried out by students of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. These students used a resin adhesive to make copies of their fingerprints, which their friends used to give them proxy attendance in the biometric attendance system.
“Lifting fingerprints is ridiculously easy. Anything you touch will leave fingerprints on it. All it requires is some cello-tape to make a copy of your fingerprints. And then you can apply some wax to it and you get an actual impression of your finger. You can go place that on any fingerprint reader and it'll be fooled,” says Kiran.
It’s not as if such duplication is not possible with devices like credit cards. However, says Kiran, there are two key differences. Firstly, credit card companies have built up elaborate checks and balances over years to tackle fraud. Secondly, and far more importantly, credit cards that have been compromised can be cancelled. “Revocability is a feature in the credit card system. In Aadhaar you can't revoke anything. If fraud happens, you are stuck with fraud for the rest of your life,” explains Kiran.