A billion India identities at risk as PM Narendra Modi widens digital reach

Shivam Shankar Singh woke last month to an e-mail from an Indian government department. It had a name, address, mobile phone number and bank account with a code for money transfers and investments made in a dairy farm. None of the details were his.

aadharThe e-mail contained details submitted to a program that collects personal and biometric data, and was meant for someone from the eastern state of Bihar. Singh, a polling campaign manager for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in Manipur, a state further east, rang the phone number listed on the e-mail but it didn’t work.

“That shook me,” said Singh, who posted about the incident on Twitter. The e-mail did not request information or ask him to click a link, suggesting it was not a phishing bid, so he did not report it to the police.

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“It seemed like a fake identity was made up using my e-mail to corner government benefits,” he said. “Or it could’ve been a mistake. But I’m sure no one wants all his personal information leaked to strangers. And this is happening at a time when the government wants a cashless, digital India.”

The state entity that captures personal data said no information was leaked from its systems. The Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, the department listed on the e-mail, said it has ordered an inquiry into the matter.

Whatever the circumstances, the episode raises fresh questions about the Unique Identification Authority of India. Better known as Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in Hindi, it was created in 2009 to identify citizens and ensure they receive state benefits in their bank accounts.

Aadhaar is getting more attention: Modi, who scrapped 86 percent of India’s currency in early November to curb the illegal hoarding of cash, has urged citizens to enroll. With a 12-digit number assigned to users, Aadhaar is key to Modi’s plan to move transactions online. He wants to make it compulsory.

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