India withdraws security warning on biometric ID photocopies after causing alarm on social media

File: A woman scans her finger for the Unique Identification (UID) database system, also known as Aadhaar, at a registration centre in New Delhi, India, January 17, 2018.
File: A woman scans her finger for the Unique Identification (UID) database system, also known as Aadhaar, at a registration centre in New Delhi, India, January 17, 2018.   -   Copyright  REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal
By Euronews  with Reuters

India has withdrawn a warning for users not to share photocopies of their national biometric identity card after the advice sparked alarm and criticism on social media.

The Aadhaar card, which has a unique number tied to an individual's fingerprints, face and eye scan, aims to block theft and leakage in India's welfare schemes. 

It serves as a single source of online and offline identity verification for Indians seeking to apply for a new passport, open a bank account or file taxes.

With more than 1.3 billion people enrolled, it’s the world’s largest biometric ID system. Bill Gates has praised Aadhaar cards for improving access to government services, but critics fear it could spawn a surveillance state.

So what happened to scare its users, and what is the Indian government saying to allay their fears?

'It can be misused'

On Friday, a regional branch of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) advised people not to share photocopies of their Aadhaar with any organisation because it could be “misused”.

"Unlicensed private entities like hotels or film halls are not permitted to collect or keep copies of Aadhaar card," the UIDAI’s Bengaluru office said in a statement.

Instead, it advised users to use a “masked” version of the card that displays only the last four digits of the ID number.

It also advised people not to use a public computer at an internet café or kiosk to access the biometric card.

The warning triggered alarm on social media as screengrabs of the press release and news articles went viral, with the issue among the top 10 trending topics in India on Twitter on Sunday.

Many users pointed out they were regularly required to leave copies of their cards when checking into hotels across India.

"I might have stayed in almost a 100 hotels who kept a copy of my Aadhar! Now this," said Twitter user @_NairFYI.

What’s the advice now?

By Sunday, amid the uproar, UIDAI clarified that the warning was made “in the context of an attempt to misuse a photoshopped Aadhaar card”, and was being withdrawn because it could be misinterpreted.

Biometric card holders are now only advised “to exercise normal prudence in using and sharing their UIDAI Aadhaar numbers”.

The UIDAI added that the system’s technology “has provided adequate features for protecting and safeguarding the identity and privacy of the Aadhaar holder”.

The agency says in its frequently asked questions that "it is near impossible to impersonate you if you use Aadhar to prove your identity."

India's Supreme Court in 2018 upheld the validity of the Aadhaar, but flagged privacy concerns and reined in a government push to make it mandatory for everything from banking to telecom services.