January 10, 2018 - Updated on January 11, 2018

Indian reporter charged after exposing trafficking in confidential data

An article in The Tribune has revealed that the confidential data of nearly 1.3 billion Indians can be obtained for just a few rupees (photo: Narinder Nanu / AFP).
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate withdrawal of the complaint that an Indian government agency has brought against a reporter and her newspaper for exposing major flaws in the confidentiality of India’s gigantic biometric database, known as Aadhaar.

In an article last week in The TribuneThe Tribune, an English-language daily based in the northern city of Chandigarh, Rachna Kharia revealed that the confidential details of any of the more than 1 billion Indian citizens with an Aadhaar ID card can obtained by means of payment of 500 rupees (6.5 euros) to anonymous vendors on WhatsApp.

Kharia’s investigative reporting has resulted in her being charged with impersonation, cheating, forgery, and using a forged document. More specifically, the complaint brought by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government agency in charge of the database, accuses her of illegally buying a service offering complete access to its 1 billion individual entries.

“This complaint is completely unacceptable,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “The journalist who exposed this scandal clearly acted in the public interest. This is a direct attack on press freedom. Instead of trying to hush up the affair by prosecuting the whistleblower, the UIDAI should follow up on The Tribune’s revelations by finding those responsible for trafficking in confidential data.”

RSF expresses its support for the newspaper, shares the Editors Guild of India’s view that the complaint is “clearly meant to browbeat a journalist” and backs a call by the Indian Journalists Union for the federal government to intervene in the UIDAI.

The world’s biggest biometric database, Aadhaar (“base” in Hindi) was launched in 2009 with the goal of assigning a 12-digit identity number to 1.3 billion Indian citizens to which everything is linked: ID card, fingerprints, iris scans, bank accounts, phone numbers, bills, accommodation, reservations, tax payments, exams passed, pregnancies and so on. In other words, all the personal data that no one would want revealed.

This centralization worries the system’s detractors, who fear the emergence of a “Big Brother,” and the flaws that Kharia exposed last week have exacerbated the concerns.

India is ranked 136th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.