Perhaps, we got lucky this time, but the ongoing problem of massive cyber-security breaches wouldn't stop at one thwarted attempt to steal sensitive information from the biggest and most important databases. An alarming report on a potential data breach impacting almost 6,000 Indian organisations — including the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) that hosts Aadhaar numbers, Reserve Bank of India, Bombay Stock Exchange and Flipkart — has surfaced and supposedly been contained.
A cyber security firm in Pune, Seqrite, had found in its Cyber Intelligence Labs that India's national internet registry, IRINN (Indian Registry for Internet Names and Numbers), which comes under NIXI (National Internet Exchange of India), was compromised, though the issue has reportedly been "addressed".
Sequite tracked an advertisement on the "dark net" — the digital underworld — offering access to servers and database dump of more than 6,000 Indian businesses and public assets, including the big ones such as UIDAI, RBI, BSE and Flipkart.
The report states that the "dealer could have had access to usernames, email ids, passwords, organisation name, invoices and billing documents, and few more important fields, and could have potentially shut down an entire organisation".
The UIDAI has denied the security breach of Aadhaar data in the IRINN attacks, in an expected move. "UIDAI reiterated that its existing security controls and protocols are robust and capable of countering any such attempts or malicious designs of data breach or hacking," said the report, which is basically a rebuttal from the powerful organisation at the heart of centralising all digital information of all Indians.
Though the aggrieved parties have been notified, and the NCIIPC (National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre) is looking at the issue, what this means is that digital information is a minefield susceptible to all kinds of threats from criminals as well as foreign adversaries, along with being commercially exploited by major conglomerates.
Till August 2017 alone, around 37 incidents of ransomware attacks have been reported, including the notorious WannaCry attacks. But what makes the attacks very, very threatening is the government's insistence — illegal at that — to link Aadhaar with every service, and create a centralised nodal, superior network of all networks.
This "map of maps" has been rightly called out as a potential national security threat, as it makes a huge reservoir of data vulnerable to cyberthreats from mercenaries, the digital underworld and foreign adversaries.
A widely circulated report prepared by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) underlined the major flaws in the 2016 Aadhaar Act, that makes it vulnerable to several digital threats. Photo: Reuters
That the data dump in the digital black market provides access to entire servers for a meagre sum of Rs 42 lakh, as mentioned in the report, is a sign of how insecure our personal information could be on the servers of the biggest government organisations and commercial/online retail giants. This includes the likes of Flipkart, which store our passwords, emails, phone numbers and other important information linked to our bank details and more.
Whilst UIDAI was declared a "protected system" under Section 70 of the Information Technology Act, and a critical information infrastructure, in practice, there are way too many breaches and leaks of Aadhaar data to merit that tag.
Because the current (officially thwarted) attempt to hack into these nodal databases involved the data of hundreds of millions of Indians, the matter has been dealt with the required seriousness. However, as the report states, "among the companies whose emails they found were Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro, Indian Space Research Organisation, Mastercard/Visa, Spectranet, Hathway, IDBI Bank and EY".
This is a laundry list of the biggest and most significant organisations, with massive digital footprints, which are sitting on enormous databanks. Hacking into ISRO, for example, could pose a formidable risk to India's space programmes as well as jeopardise information safety of crucial space projects that are jointly conducted with friendly countries such as Russia, China and the US.
A widely circulated report prepared by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) on the Aadhaar Act and its non-compliance with data protection law in India underlined the major flaws in the 2016 Aadhaar Act, that makes it vulnerable to several digital threats.
Moreover, CIS also reported how government websites, especially "those run by National Social Assistance Programme under Ministry of Rural Development, National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) run by Ministry of Rural Development, Daily Online Payment Reports under NREGA (Governemnt of Andhra Pradesh) and Chandranna Bima Scheme (also run by Government of Andhra Pradesh) combined were responsible for publicly exposing personal and Aadhaar details of over 13 crore citizens".
The government has been rather lackadaisical about the grave security threats posed by India's shaky digital infrastructure, saying it's robust when it's not: the UIDAI itself has been brushing the allegations of exclusion, data breach and leaking of data from various government and private operators' servers and there have been several documentations of the security threat as well as the human rights violations that the digital breaches pose for India's institutions and its citizens.
As noted welfare economist Jean Dreze says, "With Aadhaar immensely reinforcing the government's power to reward loyalty and marginalise dissenters, the embers of democracy are likely to be further smothered."
Even as India's jurisprudence held privacy and autonomy as supreme, Indians remain vulnerable to institutional failures and an abject lack of awareness on the gravity of digital destabilisation.