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We missed this earlier. Late December, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways made it possible for anyone to send an SMS to 7738299899 with the message ‘VAHAN’ and a vehicle number, to fetch the name of the owner, vehicle name, RC/FC expiry date and motor vehicle tax paid upto time, reports the Times of India.

Other than this, the agency will also let anyone authorize the holder of a driving license, by sending ‘SARDL’ and the license number to 8790499899. The report mentions that there is a web application for the same, however we couldn’t find it. Messaging to the number did return the details of the vehicle holder, as mentioned above.

Interestingly, a Vahan website hosted by the NIC mentions that paid services will be offered to stakeholders like banks, insurance companies, transporters and even individual employers, which gives them access to a nationwide search over the digitized data of registered vehicles. This includes (pdf) address, engine no, chassis no, class of vehicle, permit type and various other details of the owner and the vehicle. However, it’s unclear if these third parties will be able to use the information for advertising or marketing purposes.

Interestingly, the Information and Broadcasting ministry had launched a free news SMS services in five languages, over the same phone number used by transport authorities to fetch an owner’s name, back in September 2014. The news service provides news to subscribers in their preferred language from AIR News Services division.

Previous privacy violations:

– In December we reported that, the Chennai Municipal Corporation’s website lets anyone search for birth and death certificates, only requiring them to fill in gender and one other criterion from registration number, person’s name, date of birth, place of birth or mother and father’s name to display the birth or death certificates of Chennai residents or those born there.

– In May this year, as part of its initiative to encourage LPG users to pay market price and not avail the LPG subsidy provided by the government, Bharatgas put up a list of customers who opted out on its website.

– In April, the TRAI released the email IDs of everyone who replied to its consultation paper on net neutrality, providing another glaring example of how lightly online privacy is treated in India.

India has seen it’s own share of privacy nightmares: The TRAI wants a definitive date to make GPS mandatory, a draft encryption policy which weakened personal and business security but was later pulled due to an outcry (lest we forget the porn ban and the moral un-policing); but the rest of the world is not far behind. A Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT for 2015-16 is also looking into digital privacy after the Government said that Indians do not have a fundamental right to privacy.

MediaNama’s take: We’ve said it before, we need a privacy law. If you are an owner of a vehicle, essentially, anyone looking at the vehicle can figure out who you are. Thankfully, the SMS does not provide further information like the address of the owner, atleast not to general users. However, the lack of clarity on what the information can be used for by third parties is alarming. Digitisation is great, but not at the risk of individual privacy.