Earlier this year, we wrote about what seemed to be a fairly serious breach of security at the world’s largest biometric database, India’s Aadhaar. The Indian edition of Huffington Post now reports on what looks like an even more grave problem:
The authenticity of the data stored in India’s controversial Aadhaar identity database, which contains the biometrics and personal information of over 1 billion Indians, has been compromised by a software patch that disables critical security features of the software used to enrol new Aadhaar users, a three month-long investigation by HuffPost India reveals.
According to the article, the patch can be bought for just Rs 2,500 (around $ 35). The easy-to-install software removes three critical security features of Aadhaar:
The patch lets a user bypass critical security features such as biometric authentication of enrolment operators to generate unauthorised Aadhaar numbers.
The patch disables the enrolment software’s in-built GPS security feature (used to identify the physical location of every enrolment centre), which means anyone anywhere in the world — say, Beijing, Karachi or Kabul — can use the software to enrol users.
The patch reduces the sensitivity of the enrolment software’s iris-recognition system, making it easier to spoof the software with a photograph of a registered operator, rather than requiring the operator to be present in person.
As the Huffington Post article explains, creating a patch that is able to circumvent the main security features in this way was possible thanks to design choices made early on in the project. The unprecedented scale of the Aadhaar enrollment process — so far around 1.2 billion people have been given an Aadhaar number and added to the database — meant that a large number of private agencies and village-level computer kiosks were used for registration. Since connectivity was often poor, the main software was installed on local computers, rather than being run in the cloud. The patch can be used by anyone with local access to the computer system, and simply involves replacing a folder of Java libraries with versions lacking the security checks.
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), the government body responsible for the Aadhaar project, has responded to the Huffington Post article, but in a rather odd way: as a Donald Trump-like stream of tweets. The Huffington Post points out: “[the UIDAI] has simply stated that its systems are completely secure without any supporting evidence.” One of the Aadhaar tweets is as follows:
It is because of this stringent and robust system that as on date more that 50,000 operators have been blacklisted, UIDAI added.
The need to throw 50,000 operators off the system hardly inspires confidence in its overall security. What makes things worse is that the Indian government seems determined to make Aadhaar indispensable for Indian citizens who want to deal with it in any way, and to encourage business to do the same. Given the continuing questions about Aadhaar’s overall security and integrity, that seems unwise, to say the least.
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