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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