Here’s what you need to know about TRAI chief’s Aadhar challenge and everything that’s happened since

Like a lot of botched situations, this one started with an ill-advised tweet.

On 28 July, Ram Sewak Sharma, the current chief of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and interestingly, the former chief of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), challenged the Indian public to do their worst after disclosing his Aadhar number on Twitter.

The challenge was meant to end the privacy debate over Aadhar once and for all. Here was a prominent government official and a staunch advocate of the Aadhar programme giving out his details and asking for a “concrete example of harm”.

The Twitterati had a field day. A number of users posted details about his PAN card, mobile number, home address and date of birth. However, Sharma brushed off the responses, stating that the info found was publicly available and they had nothing to do with his Aadhar number. While the accuracy of most of the information found wasn’t able to be verified, the damage was done.

Even a French hacker, going by the handle of Elliot Alderson, like the character in the TV show Mr. Robot, weighed into the debate, posting a picture of Sharma with his daughter and declaring that he should never have disclosed his number in the first place.

Sharma, however, remained adamant. He said that no “harm” had been caused yet, implying that he believed that he had won the challenge.

On 29 July, the UIDAI released a statement on the issue. The government agency in charge of implementing the Aadhar programme refuted the fact that RS Sharma’s personal information had been stolen by using his Aadhar number and reiterated the fact that these details were already available on the internet.

On 30 July, the Indian government issued a statement saying that Sharma’s personal details hadn’t been extracted from the Aadhar database, and therefore, had nothing to do with the security of the Aadhar programme.

On 31 July, Sharma, looking to reframe the narrative, authored an opinion piece in the Indian Express titled “Why I gave out my Aadhar number”. He explained that the tweet wasn’t “impulsive” and restated his beliefs about the security of the system. Rather than explaining what the risks of the programme were and how the UIDAI had provisioned for these risks, Sharma chastised the critics of Aadhar for “scaremongering”.

He added that the people who had taken up the challenge had found his personal details through Google searches and had been using the info to “unsuccessfully” hack his email account and also subscribe him to a number of services, which failed because they required OTP authentication.

Finally, he addressed the fact that someone had deposited ₹1 into his account. Without pausing to examine the leak of the his bank account info, he said that this did not mean anything because he had actually received money, which was a good thing.

However, on the same day, the UIDAI issued a series of tweets cautioning people against giving out their Aadhar details.

The statement, which functioned as a veiled rebuke of the challenge in the first place, explained that publishing personal information was not compliant with the law. The UIDAI also said that it was doing so would make the holder “vulnerable”, although it wasn’t clear to what - trolling on social media or the theft of their private info?

The end result?

No one knows for sure whether the Aadhar programme is safe or not. No one’s mind seems to have changed. If anything is certain, however, it is that the people at the helm of the programme need to think first before starting a wave of misinformation and confusion on social media. It only serves to dilute the national conversation.

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