Researcher Srinivas Kodali has reported yet another leak of personal information from Andhra Pradesh government websites – this time of Eligible Couples, Pregnant Women and Children by the Nutrition and Health tracking system as well as the Reproductive and Child Health department.

The data published on this site included Aadhaar numbers of women and it tracked their reproductive history from pregnancy to its conclusion – whether abortion, risk status, follow ups or birth. It also tracked the infants early years and vaccinations. The data can be publicly accessed as area wise lists, including the Aadhaar and mobile numbers of the people being tracked.

The Nutrition and Health Tracking System also publishes similar data.

The data entry manual for the Reproductive and Child Health Portal, published in the year 2015 (before the Aadhaar Act) describes the data collected by the “Mother and Child Tracking System”. The women are identified through household surveys, regular identification by the ASHA between two household surveys and any new beneficiaries coming to Village Health and Nutrition Day (VHND) site directly.

Alarmingly, from the document, it appears that all states seem to be implementing this system.

MCTS has been implemented across the country and currently, all the States/UTs are reporting regularly on MCTS portal.

That there is definitely tracking going on and it is intentional cannot be missed.

Given the several previous leaks from Andhra Pradesh websites, including data of school children, the religion and caste geolocated data and MNREGA workers, which both contained Aadhaar numbers, the Andhra Pradesh government website appears to have allowed anyone who cares to compile data publicly provided on its websites the power to create detailed databases that could be merged using the helpfully provided Aadhaar numbers to serve as keys and provide information that could include whether or not the woman does MNREGA work, how much she earned, if her child has a sibling, and if so, which school they go to, what bank account numbers they have…

It is not likely that women registering for a government health scheme provided their information knowing that complete strangers could know if they had an abortion, by simply digging into the reproductive data lists for their area and checking to see if her name was on the list. For that matter, even that is not necessary. A curious person could search for the name of the woman and her tehsil, village, etc to run into this information because these pages are indexed by search engines. MediaNama checked.

The implications of the release of such data for women in a largely conservative India are staggering, particularly if any of them had pregnancies without being married or are widows or otherwise socially vulnerable.

Programmes designed before the Aadhaar Act

Kodali told MediaNama that he was reporting these to security agencies, who were taking his reports seriously, as can be seen from immediate redactions of Aadhaar numbers from websites and entire sites being taken offline in some instances where the data made public was too sensitive to redact in any meaningful manner.

“I am focusing on Andhra Pradesh specifically because they are collecting too much information and they have been publishing it for a long time.” Kodali said. “Rajasthan and Maharastra seem to be on similar path.”

“The early adopters of the Aadhaar program are the ones who are using it for, particularly invasive surveillance, as the programmes were designed before the Aadhaar Act came into force. Many of these databases started collecting this detailed sensitive information before the Aadhaar Act and continue to operate after the Aadhaar Act without any modifications to their operations or concern for the privacy of individuals whose data is compromised.”

However, he reports a very positive response from the security agencies, who are taking these sort of leaks seriously, as opposed to the governments who continue with denials.

“The security agencies are responding very well and following up with AP govt departments,” Kodali said. “They are removing Aadhaar numbers, sometimes they are shutting down entire websites because the very personal information is sensitive.”

MediaNama’s take

Even if there is a legitimate state interest in tracking pregnancies for purposes of health care or monitoring potential female abortions, there is no reason for the public to have the ability to monitor all the pregnant women individually. Even if one accepts the state arguments that Aadhaar is necessary for the delivery of welfare, this kind of information being public at all is a problem.

If one researcher spending some time to take a look at one state’s data security practices results in this kind of an avalanche of reports about personal information being available in public, the question of what all the states are putting out cumulatively cannot be avoided. The addition of Aadhaar numbers to all these databases is a further security risk, as the sensitive information that shouldn’t be public can now be aggregated across databases by absolutely any malicious entity that cares to do so, since it is publicly available and the Aadhaar number serves as a key that can be matched to combine entries of partial information into increasingly comprehensive information about individuals.

For example, in the lakhs of numbers leaked so far, the individuals likely to opt for MNREGS, free healthcare, PDS subsidies and so on is largely similar and the same individuals are likely to appear on multiple databases for a substantial part of the data. This knowledge, once in the public domain is nearly impossible to make reliably private again.

The ongoing denials of governments to accept the magnitude of the problem and address it in a responsible manner puts some of the most vulnerable citizens of the country at risk.

It is also not just Aadhaar numbers that are the problem, but sensitive information including mobile numbers, addresses, bank account numbers and other personally identifiable information is regularly public on government websites. Merely redacting Aadhaar numbers, while keeping other sensitive information public still compromises the privacy of individuals.