By Roopa Raju and Shekhar Rai:
As part of the directive issued by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) dated March 23, 2017, major telecom service providers have issued a deadline of February 6, 2018, for linking mobile numbers with Aadhaar as part of the E-KYC verification.
The landmark case referenced by the DoT in the circular was the order issued by the Supreme Court on February 6, 2017, delivered by Justice JS Khehar (the erstwhile Chief Justice of India) in the case of Lokniti Foundation vs Union of India. The petitioner contended that terrorists, criminals and anti-social elements frequently used SIM cards to commit atrocious, organised and unorganised crimes across the country. The petition called for ensuring 100% verification on the identity of telecom service subscribers in public interest under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. The PIL added that unverified SIM cards pose a serious threat to the country’s security as they are routinely used in criminal and terrorist activities, thereby affecting a citizen’s right (as ensured under Article 21 of the Constitution). As per the CAG report tabled at the Parliament in 2014, the identities of 4.59 crore mobile users still remained unverified.
Article 21 of the Constitution of India, 1949, states that – “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.” While there is a threat to the common public interest through increased acts of terrorism and atrocities due to unverified SIM cards, the safety of information provided and linked to Aadhaar are increasingly being questioned.
In a study dated May 1, 2017, published by the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore-based organisation, it was observed that data of over 130 million Aadhaar card-holders were leaked from just four government portals dealing with the National Social Assistance programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Chandranna Bima Scheme and the Daily Online Payment Reports of NREGA.
On October 25, 2017, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, also strongly opposed the government’s plan to link mobile numbers with Aadhaar cards. She said that it was a breach of privacy and that the ruling government was intruding upon the citizen’s right to personal freedom. However, the Supreme Court questioned the state government’s right to challenge the Centre and asked her to file a plea with the court in her individual capacity.
As per the data published by Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) on September 14, 2017, India’s telecom subscriber base dipped by 1.3 lakh to 121.07 crore in July 2017. Moreover, only three operators – Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and the state-run BSNL – reported additions to their subscriber base.
|Month||Telephone subscriber base
(Source: TRAI monthly subscription data)
The dip in the subscriber count for various telecom operators can be accredited to the phasing of registration of SIM cards through E-KYC for new mobile numbers. While there is a the possibility of addition of genuine subscribers in the following months, the direct subscriber acquisition cost (DSAC) has been significantly reduced owing to the overall reduction in subscriber addition (assuming exclusion of sunk cost).
Prior to the DoT directive, telecom service providers relied heavily on the documents provided by the subscribers for SIM registration. The two-fold impact of this was the delay in SIM activation, owing to the transfer of documents from the retailer to the distributor to the company and the possibility of documents not matching with the usage timeline of usage. Additionally, tracking the ever-changing retailers was difficult for the service providers – and with the subscriber documents being collected and stored at one location by the service providers, verification of dummy subscribers was difficult.
With the introduction of Aadhaar linkage for mobile numbers, subscribers are held accountable for its usage, thereby tagging responsibility for any acts arising as a result. Savings from the digitisation of documents and paper should also be considered.
However, an increased number of job losses is possible, owing to the ‘optimisation’ of the process by way of document verification, servicing costs and reliance on third parties (to name just a few). Increased compliance costs are also an issue of concern.
The key question that looms prominently with the approaching deadline is how secure public data will be, given that it may possibly be linked with bank account numbers and income tax returns. With retailers using fingerprints of the subscribers to validate Aadhaar numbers with the mobile numbers at the time of SIM registration, there is an increased risk of exposure to identity theft.
While the government is increasingly trying to bring in a seamless process to assimilate data for transparency in analysing consumer patterns, it is suggested that they also allocate funds for enhancing the cyber-security of the data consolidated from this directive. Furthermore, cyber security regulations can be strengthened to avoid data leakages to third party organisations. Severe penalties should also be implemented to ensure robust compliance to these measures.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.