Shooting the messenger

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Journalists taking out a protest march against UIDAI authorities for lodging an FIR against a reporter of The Tribune, in Chandigarh on January 8. Photo: AKHILESH KUMAR

Edward Snowden, the U.S. NSA whistle-blower. He has said that the journalist who exposed the data breach deserves an award. Photo: The Hindu Archives

IN yet another attack on freedom of the press, a first information report (FIR) has been registered against a journalist for reporting on an Aadhaar data breach. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) filed an FIR against Rachna Khaira, a reporter with The Tribune, for her story titled “Rs.500, 10 minutes, and you have access to billion Aadhaar details”.

The report mentioned how, using a false identity, the reporter was able to “purchase” a service offered by anonymous sellers over WhatsApp that offered unrestricted access to personal details for any Aadhaar number. “It took just Rs.500, paid through Paytm, and 10 minutes in which an ‘agent’ of the group running the racket created a ‘gateway’ for this correspondent and gave a login ID and password,” writes Rachna Khaira in the report. The details available were names, addresses, postal codes (PIN), photographs, phone numbers and email IDs. By paying another Rs.300, The Tribune team got the “software” to print the Aadhaar card of any individual, said the report.

The UIDAI responded by denying that any such data breach was possible, and a Deputy Director of the agency, B.M. Patnaik, registered an FIR with the cyber cell of Delhi Police’s Crime Branch under Indian Penal Code Sections 419 (punishment for cheating by impersonation), 420 (cheating), 468 (forgery) and 471 (using as genuine a forged document), Section 66 of the Information Technology Act and Section 36/37 of the Aadhaar Act.

This is not the first time the UIDAI has acted belligerently against reporters attempting to expose loopholes in the system. In January 2017, the agency filed an FIR against the CNN News-18 reporter Debayan Roy after he showed how it was possible to get two Aadhaar enrolment numbers with the same set of biometrics. Earlier, an FIR was filed against Sameer Kochhar, chairman of the Skoch Group, for posting how the biometric identification system was vulnerable to replay attacks. Instead of investigating these claims, the agency is on a spree to silence those who might actually be trying to strengthen the system. The latest FIR was picked up by social media and it created a storm. Several people pointed out that instead of shooting the messenger, the UIDAI should look at fixing the loopholes.

The case also came to the notice of the United States’ National Security Agency whistle-blower in exile, Edward Snowden, who tagged the agency and tweeted: “The journalists exposing the #Aadhaar breach deserve an award, not an investigation. If the government were truly concerned for justice, they would be reforming the policies that destroyed the privacy of a billion Indians. Want to arrest those responsible? They are called @UIDAI.” The Press Club of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps and the Press Association came together to condemn the action and express their strong objection. They released a statement saying: “The UIDAI filing criminal complaints against the reporter and her sources is clearly reflective of its misplaced priorities. We, the undersigned organisations find the UIDAI’s move extremely intimidatory, obstructionist and inimical to the pursuit of free, fair and independent journalism. We demand that the complaint and the proceedings related to it should be withdrawn forthwith.”

The Editors Guild of India too expressed concern about the manner in which the agency was browbeating a journalist “whose investigation on the matter was of great public interest. It is unfair, unjustified and a direct attack on the freedom of the press.”

Divya Trivedi

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