Why did Nandan Nilekani praise a Twitter troll?

As the Supreme Court upholds the linking of ‘Aadhar’ with PAN, questions around ex-UIDAI chairman Nandan Nilekani praising iSPIRT head Sharad Sharma Twitter troll and ‘Aadhar’s privacy properties will continue to be asked

Written by Kiran Jonnalagadda | Updated: June 10, 2017 2:16 pm
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Last month, Sharad Sharma, the head of the Indian Software Product Industry Round Table (iSPIRT) Foundation, an organisation that promotes Aadhaar to industry, was outed as the operator of at least two anonymous Twitter troll accounts that viciously harassed and defamed critics of Aadhaar. The shocking revelation was first met with denial by iSPIRT, and then followed by what may be understood as a reticent apology from Mr Sharma.

In a bizarre sequence of events, the apology received praise from several quarters. iSPIRT’s Guidelines and Compliance Committee (IGCC) investigated Mr Sharma and the ‘Sudham’ team that coordinated the trolling campaign. Two members of the investigating committee subsequently resigned, although only one confirmed.

The committee’s findings, confirming that Mr Sharma was responsible, were summarised for the public by Mr Sharma himself, who then announced that his role as a public spokesperson would now be handled by Sanjay Jain. Mr Jain was once with the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), launched by Nandan Nilekani, is currently a director at Nandan Nilekani’s EkStep Foundation, and a close confidante of Mr Sharma. The two have often pitched iSPIRT’s IndiaStack initiative together.

In an internal email questioning this decision, an iSPIRT member asked whether Mr Jain was a part of the ‘Sudham’ team, and whether he was also “at least partially culpable for the [troll] campaign and the violation of the code of conduct.”

The victims of the trolling have received no report, and the two apologies posted by Mr Sharma were both for having “condoned uncivil behaviour”, but not for personally orchestrating the attacks. Among those who praised him was Nandan Nilekani, former chairman of UIDAI and chief mentor of iSPIRT.

Critics have been pointing out for years that Aadhaar lacks sufficient checks and balances, and that claims of benefits are overstated. These concerns have been met with denial, condemnation of critics, and often outright refusal to engage in debate. This has unfortunately only served to alienate an even larger section of the population, turning ordinary citizens into activists.

We can gain an insight into how Aadhaar is promoted by examining iSPIRT. The organisation was founded in 2013 by volunteers who had been working together on the sidelines of the NASSCOM Product Conclave. These volunteers felt the need for an independent grassroots organisation to represent tech entrepreneurs who were building products for India and the world. iSPIRT has grown phenomenally influential over its few years, largely by the work of volunteers who were truly interested in building a mutual assistance community.

Level playing fields are a recurring topic. Just as there is a desire to lower bureaucratic hurdles to give every entrepreneur a fair chance, there is also the question of how a startup can compete against a foreign competitor that has the advantage of a stronger home market.

Flipkart and Ola are two prominent examples in their fight to defend their market share against Amazon and Uber, competitors armed with global experience, more capital, and better trained talent. iSPIRT’s take is that for Indian companies to thrive they must have a supportive ecosystem that enables rapid growth, and so iSPIRT must step up as an “activist think tank”.

One aspect of this activism is IndiaStack, which seeks to help startups by promoting a suite of ‘public goods’: Aadhaar and eKYC for id verification, eSign and Digilocker for digital contracts and certificates, and UPI for payments. If one accepts at face value that these services are well intentioned, then IndiaStack is on a noble quest. The details, unfortunately, are less pristine.

iSPIRT is a private non-profit, but its volunteers include several former members of UIDAI. The guidance and compliance committee (IGCC) investigating the trolling included a current member of government. iSPIRT helped build and evangelise the UPI (United Payments Interface) platform and BHIM app for NPCI, but the level of involvement and terms of the agreement are not public.

For an organisation that claims to champion public goods, iSPIRT is opaque on the level of influence they wield with government (Mr Sharma once claimed some influence but no control), and on who exactly built the various components of IndiaStack, within or outside of government.

They showed a remarkable degree of influence when foisting UPI on a change-resistant banking sector. They have funding from four banks (IDFC, SBI, Bank of Baroda and Axis Bank) and from fintech startups. Despite this level of responsibility, they also have no accountability since they are a pro bono volunteer force, allowing them to distance themselves from failures (UPI failures are NPCI’s problem and Aadhaar failures are UIDAI’s problem, etc) and unpleasant incidents such as the ‘Sudham’ trolling project. (No one has accepted responsibility for operating a troll account.)

At the core of IndiaStack is ‘Aadhaar’, which as it currently stands has serious concerns from its technical architecture to institutional safeguards. Aadhaar lacks publicly verifiable audits, a data breach disclosure policy, or an engagement process for researchers to report concerns.

For reasons best known to them, the promoters of ‘Aadhaar’ are in a tearing hurry to impose it everywhere, in every aspect of an Indian’s life, out of an apparent fear that it will die if adoption slows down. This is eerily reminiscent of startup mantras like “fake it till you make it” and “move fast and break things”.

But ‘Aadhaar’ already has a billion enrollments and the backing of legal measures pushed by the Union Government. There is no threat of imminent demise. And yet, as the Twitter trolling shows, this fear continues to exist for ‘Aadhaar’s proponents, so much so that critics must be silenced at any cost.

Where trolling failed to work, subtler attacks are sure to follow. There have been some in the recent past.

The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) is facing one such attack for its report on the leak of 130 million Aadhaar numbers. The report received wide coverage and was followed by new rules from MEITy (ministry of Electronics & Information Technology) regarding the handling of Aadhaar numbers, but instead of commending CIS for its role in improving safeguards, UIDAI is accusing it of hacking, demanding the identity of the researcher so that he or she may be individually prosecuted.

When Sameer Kochhar demonstrated that previously captured fingerprints were being reused because Aadhaar’s API lacked technical safeguards, UIDAI responded by prosecuting him. A News18 journalist was also prosecuted for demonstrating how double application for enrollment was possible using different names.

As of September 30, 2017, ‘registered’ devices will be mandatory as the current devices are not secure against fingerprint reuse, and an unknown number of fingerprints have already been captured and stored. This sort of forced technological upgrade will happen again as more problems surface into public consciousness, with more researchers and critics harassed for pointing these out.

‘Aadhaar’ pursues inherently contradictory goals. The process of ‘inorganic seeding’, for instance, allows a database to be seeded with ‘Aadhaar’ numbers, to help a service provider identify and eliminate duplicates without the individual’s cooperation. (Inorganic seeding is an official UIDAI scheme.) And yet, the law prohibits using and sharing ‘Aadhaar’ numbers without the individual’s consent.

‘Aadhaar’ aims to be an inclusive project, providing an identity for everyone, and yet easily lends itself to being an instrument of exclusion. There is technical exclusion when biometrics fail to match, and there is institutional exclusion when Aadhaar is made mandatory and an individual is then blacklisted from a service or denied Aadhaar enrollment.

Aviation minister Jayant Sinha recently announced a proposal to use digital id for just this purpose. ‘Aadhaar’ in its current state makes it extraordinarily simple for an organisation to demand it for authentication, but what of the necessary safeguards to protect an individual’s rights? Or of ensuring that grievance redressal mechanisms are in place and actually functional? These are not solved by a technical API integration.

Just as we’ve seen with nuclear power, weak institutions which are sensitive to criticism and fail to ensure effective oversight amplify the risks of the underlying technology. Aadhaar’s supporting institutions, whether government bodies like UIDAI or private bodies like iSPIRT, are immature for the mandate they carry. All technology improves with time, but weak institutions hamper their benefit to society.

As the leading promoter of Aadhaar, founding chairman of UIDAI, and chief mentor of iSPIRT, Mr Nilekani must step up and commit to improving the institutions he commands, and take responsibility for their failures. Condemning critics instead does not help build institutions.

Kiran Jonnalagadda is a tech and society enthusiast, co-founder of @HasGeek and Internet Freedom Foundation. He tweets @jackerhack

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  1. X
    Xerxes Shah
    Jun 11, 2017 at 2:24 pm
    Aadhaar, cashlessness, EVM tampering, draconian tax laws, etc are the new insidious weapons to hand us over to East India Company II. You can now see the governments power grab and dismant of democracy everywhere. We are in the process of being sold as slaves. Wake up and smell the coffee.
    Reply
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      pankaj
      Jun 11, 2017 at 1:07 am
      Critics of Aadhar should be put to lie detector test and checked what made them lie abvout AAdhar like privacy related statements, how they can be so dumb or deceptive or both, what promotes their hatred for their own soeicty's improvement. Why they want cheating and looting of corrupt and criminal people.
      Reply
      1. E
        Employ Ment
        Jun 10, 2017 at 9:31 pm
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        Reply
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          rohit
          Jun 10, 2017 at 9:19 pm
          Fine.
          Reply
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            An Indian
            Jun 10, 2017 at 8:11 pm
            Rubbish. This is a classic example of how to sow unease without giving clear examples. Given the capabilities of Kiran, I would ume (in normal cir stances), he would be supportive and help the Aadhar team to fix the issues. These don't look like normal cir stances to me. What is the alternative should Aadhar go away? We as a country will have to depend on iden y provided by Google and Facebook - thus giving our iden y away to them. I would much rather have my iden y stored by the Govt of India and by Google/FB. Makes me wonder what particular axe is Kiran Jonalgadda grinding? Also, linking of Aadhar and iSPIRT is completely unwarranted. iSPIRT has other goals that have nothing to do with Aadhar. Finally, Sharad retaliated because he was being attacked. What was he supposed to do - sit quietly and keep taking it? He's human too. Kiran now seems to have a stick - all he'll do is call Sharad a troll. But isn't Kiran trol too?
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              Anand
              Jun 10, 2017 at 9:32 pm
              FYI, Kiran does not want Aadhaar to go away. He wants it to be reformed with sa uards for privacy, grievance addresal, etc in place. But UIDAI and other people are not listening because of their vested interests in maximum profits no matter the cost to the Indian. Look what happened to CIS? When they made a report on data leaks, they were harrassed.
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                Ravi Blr
                Jun 11, 2017 at 7:22 am
                I see your concern on Aadhar imperfections, but no new technology can wait till all the carping critics are satisfied that it is perfect. By then the technology will be obsolete. We need to fix Aadhar issues on the fly, but implementation needs to go full swing
                1. X
                  Xerxes Shah
                  Jun 11, 2017 at 2:30 pm
                  Aadhaar cannot be reformed. Improving on Aadhaar is like wanting to make a cancer in your body more malignant. Instead of learning from other countries that have abandoned such projects we continue to delude people that we have geniuses that can make it easier work. Aadhaar is a tool for total surveillance control. It's stated benefits don't even stand up to rational scrutiny. Wake up and look at the big picture of what is being attempted.
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                    Punekar
                    Jun 11, 2017 at 2:59 pm
                    @Ravi, you sound like someone who is unaware of anything related to technology. Are you a 12th grader or if emplo a peon? Look at any new technology that is launched for consumption, be it a software or OS, a gadget, a car or a service, unless it has been tested and proven reasonably flawless it will not hit the market. If any company is foolish to jump the due process of diligence before launch, it will go bankrupt fighting consumer action against damages caused due to negligence. If technology becomes obsolete, so be it because people cannot be made to suffer because it is imperfect, period. LOL! you need to "fix Aadhar issues on the fly". The Government can get away with it because of our weak judiciary and the fact that we do not initiate cl action suit. Any person who is excluded from his legitimate benefits, like his right to board an aircraft or possess a mobile phone because his arms have been am ted while working as a fireman saving lives should be highly condemnable.
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                  DimaagKaDahi
                  Jun 10, 2017 at 6:27 pm
                  Nandan Nilekani is an opportunist. Jab congress ke saath dal nahi gali he started warming up to BJP. So much for integrity. Just like Aadhaar, he is a man of many contradictions.
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                    rohit
                    Jun 10, 2017 at 9:27 pm
                    Good
                    Reply
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                    Suresh Hattangadi
                    Jun 10, 2017 at 2:56 pm
                    The article is good and informative but umes all readers are tech savvy.Most of the readers will require more explanation and understand the misgivings of these technical people.There is no such explanation.Merely saying we have misgivings and you must believe us will not work in today's world.Please enlighten ordinary people like us what happens or how duplication of fingerprints is possible.When more persons understand this it will get more support and suitable measures to avoid pitfalls will have to be taken.
                    Reply
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                      Subspan Raman
                      Jun 10, 2017 at 2:34 pm
                      Recently I attended a workshop where parti nts were grouped and asked to solve a problem. One group made up of IT personnel kept on trying to perfect their solution, jumping from level to level, thinking of every possible scenario and were not able to complete their task. They lost. This is the problem with many IT people. They think of too many "if"s and want the perfect solution. This is not possible since ultimately any system is only as good as the people in it, just like our contry's politics. You need to start somewhere and as we move along we correct the mistakes
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                        Punekar
                        Jun 11, 2017 at 3:07 pm
                        IT professionals IT personnel kept on trying to perfect their solution because they are trained to do so. The fact that people like you who do not wait for their their product (or work) to be perfect before launch is the reason why you never succeed in the global market because you believe in Jugad which might succeed in a one off instance but will fail in a real environment. Try flying a plane which is not hundred percent safe or use a medicine which has not complete it's clinical trails and then profess your useless bige. Indians who succeed abroad are those who unlearned their "jugad" mentality and have learned the value of due diligence. We Indians get away with the substandard because our expectations are the same and when we suffer we do not make those responsible pay.
                        Reply
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