Last weekend I was at Aditi Mittal’s standup comedy show in Mumbai where she made a cheeky remark that stayed with me – “Do you guys know what India’s soft power is today? It is trolling!”
While she was poking fun at the Snapchat-Snapdeal-Evan Spiegel controversy, in a bizarre coincidence those words came back to haunt me three days later. That was when one of biometric authentication system Aadhaar’s most vocal critics, Kiran Jonnalagadda, co-founder of Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), an advocacy group, revealed in a series of tweets that @Confident_India, one of the anonymous accounts arguing in favour of Aadhaar and attacking its critics on Twitter, was being operated by none other than Sharad Sharma, the founder of software products think tank iSPIRT.
At the time, Sharad had completely denied that he was tweeting from an anonymous account. But today, on Twitter, Sharad apologised for the anonymous trolling on Twitter.
In a tweet, Sharad stated that “There was a lapse of judgement on my part. I condoned tweets with uncivil comments. So I’d like to unreservedly apologise to everybody who was hurt by them.”
He added that “Anonymity seemed easier than propriety, and tired as I was by personal events and attacks on iSPIRT’s reputation, I slipped.” Furthermore, he stated that he would not be part of anything like this again or allow such behaviour to continue. He also revealed that an iSPIRT Guidelines and Compliance Committee (IGCC) has been set up to investigate the matter and recommend corrective action.
On Catching A Troll
On 17 May, Kiran tweeted out a revelation, which shook a lot of people – “Have we caught an Aadhaar troll?” Kiran used Twitter’s account reset option on Confident_India with Sharad Sharma’s number to see if it is was accepted. And, as per a screenshot posted by him, it did.
— Kiran Jonnalagadda (@jackerhack) May 17, 2017
This was further corroborated by many other Twitter users. Medianama’s Nikhil Pahwa (and co-founder of IFF) also confirmed the same, tweeting that the troll account does link to Sharad Sharma.
— Nikhil Pahwa (@nixxin) May 17, 2017
In a detailed Medium post, Kiran then revealed how he investigated the rise of anonymous Twitter accounts and trolls responding to critics of Aadhaar. But what he revealed next was the shocking part – that at the 27th Fellows meeting of the think tank, a plan was hatched to respond to critics of India Stack which involved the use of trolls. A group called Sudham, created earlier, divided people who were broadcasting different views on Aadhaar, into different categories and then underlined various proposals on dealing with them. One of the groups called “archers” was entrusted to carry out the mainstream debate, while another group of “swordsmen” was entrusted to challenge people who were categorised as informed yet “trolling.” Swordsmen would do this by coordinating on WhatsApp with quick responses and in numbers.
Kiran got a hold of the presentation and also shared how one controversial slide also showed a detractor matrix.
It is this slide which Kiran uses to illustrate the fact that: “ iSPIRT has an officially sanctioned trolling program where the trolls coordinate on WhatsApp and attack together on Twitter, exactly the behaviour seen in all the tweets above—and I’ve only covered the leader’s tweets. There are at least a dozen known troll accounts that attack in packs.”
Back when the information was first revealed, Sharad Sharma responded by denying that he was tweeting from the @Confident_India Twitter account.
— Sharad Sharma (@sharads) May 17, 2017
He further added that he was in for a family emergency in the US. And that he was clueless as to why his number was linked with that account.
Frankly I have no clue. When I just logged in with my phone number it gave me only one option. Anyways gotta run.
— Sharad Sharma (@sharads) May 17, 2017
But, interestingly, what roused the investigator’s suspicions was that Sharad shared the same denial from another troll account @indiaforward2 – which was captured by another Twitter user before it was deleted.
The denial from Sharad’s true account came half an hour later. But the damage had been done and all fingers pointed in the direction of Sharad Sharma engaging in trolling from those accounts. Kiran then wrote another damning post on Sharad’s dubious denial.
As can be guessed, all the tweets related to this matter from Sharad’s and Indiaforward’s accounts have been deleted. The last tweet from Confident India’s account on 17 May professed that he is not Sharad Sharma.
Hey hey hey Came back from work and wow I am @sharads sweet !!! I am not him! Wish I was 🙁
— Confident India (@Confident_India) May 17, 2017
Meanwhile, iSPIRT finally responded to Kiran’s revelations on Medium –“We want to categorically state that the allegations against iSPIRT coordinating and/or promoting any troll campaign are false and the evidence presented is a deliberate misreading of our intent to engage with those speaking against India Stack.”
The post further explained that in its Fellows meeting held in February and April 2017, it did address the issue of the chatter around India Stack. It says, “Our volunteer, Tanuj Bhojwani, led the discussion and we outlined our strategy for dealing with our detractors. The slide in question is clearly titled “Detractor Matrix.” The slide outlines how we classify those speaking against India Stack, and how we are engaging with them. We called one category of people “informed yet trolling (IYT),” a category of people deliberately misleading people, despite understanding the nuance behind the debate.”
The post admitted that the think tank encouraged volunteers to respond to these IYT Twitter handles directly from their own personal handles. However, at no point did it endorse or recommend anonymous trolling.
“We are aware that some volunteers and their friends have created an anonymous campaign to Support Aadhaar. This is not a troll campaign, but an informational one. It is also not an iSPIRT campaign.”
It concluded with: “Kiran’s motivated misrepresentation of the slides perhaps speaks to his biases against iSPIRT.” The post added that it plans to investigate the confusion around the alleged mobile number and account link and clarify all outstanding questions.
Meanwhile coming back to trolling from where we started. Though Sharad’s apology did not say directly whether he operated the two Twitter accounts — @Confident_ India and @Indiaforward2 — which he was suspected of using for trolling- he signs off by saying that he requests “those who I have disappointed to look at this as an exception.”
Nandan Nilekani has supported Sharad through his tweet-
— Nandan Nilekani (@NandanNilekani) May 23, 2017
Meanwhile, people still continue to troll against this apology.
The Aadhaar Controversy
While the series of incidents raises many doubts over an esteemed organisation such as iSPIRT, the controversy over Aadhaar, India’s massive biometric identification programme, has been raging for many months now.
Over the last few months, it has come under fire for not addressing the privacy concerns of an individual and leaking individual data. Aadhaar critics have pointed out that it is more a mass surveillance tool, can lead to identity thefts, and linking basic services with it spells doom.
This month, a CIS (Centre for Internet and Society ) report revealed that Aadhaar numbers and personal information of as many as 135 million Indians could have been leaked from four government portals, due to lack of IT security practices. The report claimed that the absence of “proper controls” in populating the databases could have disastrous results as it may divulge sensitive information about individuals, including details about the address, photographs, and financial data. It also added that as many as 100 Mn bank account numbers could have been “leaked.”
However, on May 16, the CIS updated its report and clarified that although the term ‘leak’ was originally used 22 times in its report, it is at “best characterised as an illegal data disclosure or publication and not a breach or a leak.” It also claimed that some of its findings were “misunderstood or misinterpreted” by the media and that it never suggested that the biometric database had been breached.
Meanwhile, the Aadhaar-issuing authority UIDAI has asked CIS to explain its sensational claim that 13 crore Aadhaar numbers were “leaked” and provide details of servers where they are stored. The UIDAI also wants CIS to clarify what kind of “sensitive data” is still with the Centre or anyone else. The UIDAI has strongly denied any breach of its database and has asked CIS to provide details such as the servers where the downloaded “sensitive data” is stored.
While the security of the above-mentioned Aadhaar data is still being debated, the government’s push towards making it compulsory across industries has become a major topic of debate in India.
From linking bank accounts, to PAN numbers, to obtaining free gas connections under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, to linking scholarships to linking Aadhaar numbers to social welfare schemes for electronically disbursing money to specific beneficiaries, or the Aadhaar-enabled Payment System (AEPS), the government has been pushing on with Aadhaar to make it a mandatory ID rather than the voluntary one it was envisaged to be originally. India still does not have a data protection and privacy law and making Aadhaar mandatory in such a country is not without risks.
Given the fact that the UIDAI cannot afford to carry out authentication-based rollouts across schemes in haste as the failure rate of AEPS can lead to denial of direct benefits, it makes more sense to retain Aadhaar as a voluntary authenticator, at least until the government solves on-ground issues around Aadhaar-based authentication. Because any failure can erode public faith in Aadhaar as the beneficiary would not get his rightful ration over authentication failure— and, to that extent, in the government itself. So, for beneficiaries who depend on public distribution systems (PDS) for rice, sugar, kerosene or oil, authentication failure is a serious problem.
It is to this effect that PILs (public interest litigation suits) have been filed in the Supreme Court stating that making Aadhaar compulsory is illegal and would virtually convert citizens into “slaves” as they would be under the government’s surveillance all the time. The Supreme Court had itself stated in August 2015 that Aadhaar cards will not be mandatory for availing benefits of government’s welfare schemes and had also barred authorities from sharing personal biometric data collected for enrollment under the scheme.
Last month too, it lambasted the Narendra Modi-led BJP government at the Centre for making Aadhaar card a mandatory prerequisite to avail government services. The court will examine all applications against Aadhaar on June 27 2017, while the government remains steadfast on not extending the deadline of June 30 by which various schemes such as the grant of scholarships, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and various other social welfare schemes were to seek mandatory Aadhaar number.
While the debate rages on, controversies keep on piling up. Recently, linking people living with HIV/ AIDS with Aadhaar cards has allegedly driven away patients from hospitals and antiretroviral therapy (ATR) centres in Madhya Pradesh. As per health department sources, the MP State AIDS Control Society made Aadhaar card number compulsory from February this year for those affected by the virus to get free medicines and treatment in accordance with the Central government’s policy making Aadhaar mandatory to avail benefits of any government scheme.
However, this led to negative fallout as many patients and suspected victims started avoiding ATR centres and district hospitals after the new rule came into effect. The patients feared that the compulsory submission of Aadhaar card to get free medicines and medical check-ups could lead to the disclosure of their identity, inviting social stigma.
While there is no denying the fact that, in a welfare state, technology can play a big role in enabling the state to hand out entitlements more efficiently and distribute public services at scale. But doing the same at the cost of an individual citizen’s privacy and resting it all on one mandatory number whose authentication is still not completely foolproof, is hardly the way a welfare state would like to operate.