The Editors Guild said the Aadhaar-issuing authority UIDAI’s decision to pursue criminal action against the journalist was “unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press”.

New Delhi: An Indian government agency has filed a police complaint against a journalist who exposed a possible security breach in the country’s vast biometric database that contains the personal details of over a billion citizens, raising fresh concerns about shrinking press freedom in India.

The complaint against journalist Rachna Khaira came after she wrote an article in the Tribune newspaper saying that reporters were able to buy access to addresses, emails, and phone numbers of a billion citizens for about $8. For an extra $5, reporters purchased access to a software that allowed them to print unique identity cards, which enables people to access a host of government services such as free school meals and fuel subsidies.

Khaira’s investigation created an outcry in India as it suggests the data of a billion citizens may not be protected as well as the government had previously claimed. The breach she uncovered, the article said, exposed almost every Indian citizen to identity fraud and intrusions of privacy.

The police complaint against Khaira is the latest in clashes between India’s government and media. India ranks 136 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, down three points from the previous year. Killings of prominent journalists such as Gauri Lankesh and Sudip Datta Bhowmik have sparked protests around the country.

Khaira said the revelations in her story were just the “tip of the iceberg.” She said, “We have almost completed our entire investigation… We have got much more than what we have exposed so far and which we are going to bring up in the next few days.”

In response to Khaira’s story, the Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI), which oversees the biometric program sent a letter to the Tribune’s editor saying, “It is the UIDAI’s position that there was absolutely no access to the biometric details (i.e. fingerprints and iris scans) of any individual whatsoever on the said UIDAI portal.” The letter then asked the newspaper’s editor to clarify if the reporter had accessed fingerprint and iris data and the number of individuals whose data the reporter had accessed for the story.

India’s minister of law, Ravi Shankar Prasad, however suggested that the government did not support the Unique Identification Authority’s heavy-handed approach to the journalist’s investigation. In a tweet, Prasad wrote: “Govt. is fully committed to freedom of Press as well as to maintaining security & sanctity of #Aadhaar for India’s development. FIR is against unknown. I’ve suggested @UIDAI to request Tribune & it’s journalist to give all assistance to police in investigating real offenders.”(sic)

And in a turnaround late Monday, local time, the Unique Identification Authority said it would work with the Tribune to identify wrongdoing.

“UIDAI is committed to the freedom of Press. We’re going to write to @thetribunechd & @rachnakhaira to give all assistance to investigate to nab the real culprits. We also appreciate if Tribune & its journalist have any constructive suggestion to offer.”

In light of the tweet, it was unclear if the agency would continue with its police complaint against Khaira.

The governing Bharatiya Janata Party had earlier tweeted from its official account that Khaira’s report was “fake news.” In another tweet, it quoted tech titan Nandan Nilekani who created the biometric program known as Aadhaar saying: “The security concerns raised around Aadhaar are complete nonsense, figment of imagination and a deliberate attempt to create an alarmist talk.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government champions the biometric database as a way to tackle welfare fraud and corruption in India. In the past year, the Modi government has tried to make Aadhaar cards mandatory to access a number of essential public services but was held back by activists who filed cases against the government in the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, government officials have visited remote parts of the country to encourage people to sign up to the biometric database voluntarily. So far, its efforts have worked – over a billion Indian citizens have signed up. However, thousands of Indians are still not on the database.

India’s Editors Guild said in a statement that the Unique Identification Authority’s decision to pursue criminal action against the journalist was “unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press.” In a statement, it said, “Instead of penalising the reporter, UIDAI should have ordered a thorough internal investigation into the alleged breach and made its findings public.”

The Tribune’s editor Harish Khare issued a statement saying, “Our story was in response to a very genuine concern among the citizens on a matter of great public interest.

“We regret very much that the authorities have misconceived an honest journalistic enterprise and have proceeded to institute criminal proceedings against the whistleblower.”

Amid Anger Over Aadhaar Case, Court Backs Freedom of Expression: 10 Facts

NEW DELHI:  As the police case against journalists who exposed the gaps in security network of the world’s largest biometric system, Aadhaar, triggered outrage, the government today said it was “committed” to the freedom of the Press. Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad tweeted to say the FIR is against unknown persons and the journalists and the biometric authority UIDAI have been asked to help the police. The Supreme Court which is hearing a petition challenging the validity of Aadhaar, meanwhile, made it clear that politicians should “allow freedom of expression” during the hearing on another case.

                 Here are the top 10 updates in this big story:
  1. Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s tweet today read: “Govt. is fully committed to freedom of Press as well as to maintaining security & sanctity of #Aadhaar for India’s development. FIR is against unknown. I’ve suggested @UIDAI to request Tribune & it’s journalist to give all assistance to police in investigating real offenders”.
  2. “You must allow freedom of expression by Journalists… there may be some wrong reporting. But don’t hold on to it forever,” the Supreme Court said today when a lawmaker appealed regarding a case of defamation in Patna following a story on illegal land allocation.
  3. The police case against the journalist of The Tribune — who broke the story about the vulnerability of the Aadhaar database — has been criticised by the media, the civil society and the opposition.
  4. The Editor’s Guild of India has condemned it, calling the action “unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press.”
  5. After the law minister’s tweet, the UIDAI also said it is “committed to the freedom of Press”.
  6. The opposition said the law minister is unaware of the activities of his department officials. “They should withdraw the FIR… this is attacking the freedom of the press and those who are explaining serious flaws in the system,” said senior Congress leader Manish Tiwari.
  7. Legal experts say the case against the journalist will stand “legal scrutiny”. “On Aadhaar breach, the UIDAI can file an FIR, but how can they file against a reporter? The reporter only exposed the breach,” Senior Advocate Anand Grover .
  8. Last week, The Tribune reported that it received an offer to buy access into the Aadhaar database for Rs. 500 and its journalist was given login details to access the data. The journalist tried to key in an individual’s Aadhaar number and was able to see the demographic details of the person concerned, the newspaper reported.
  9. The UIDAI, which already faces a legal challenge in the Supreme Court over privacy concerns, had filed the police complaint against the Tribune story, naming the journalist and insisting there was no breach in its system.
  10. The police are now investigating if the leak took place from the UIDAI staff who are the custodians of biometric details. The government has already formed a committee to look into data privacy protection following earlier reports of breach.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by The Jaihind staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)