Over the weekend, it emerged that an old number used by the Aadhaar-issuing Unique Identification Authority of India for a helpline, 1800-300-1947, was mysteriously present on all Android phones in the country. Theories swirled that the government had forced telcos and handset makers to insert the number on users’ phonebooks, and if they could do that, where did their control stop?
Check your phone contacts: You may see an entry for UIDAI with the number 1800-300-1947. This has been pushed mysteriously thru the back end?
If correct It means agencies can push anything into your phone without your knowledge.
And extract anything.
— Prabhu Chawla (@PrabhuChawla) August 3, 2018
Of course, this isn’t entirely true. UIDAI strongly denied that it asked any service provider or phone manufacturer to include that number in users’ phones without consent. In a twist, it turned out that Google, which develops the Android operating system, was at fault:
— Google India (@GoogleIndia) August 3, 2018
In 2014, the company said, it inadvertently coded the number into a piece of software it gives handset makers to install the Android operating system on their devices. This timing was especially curious, since the UIDAI number was supposed to work with 1800-300-1947, as well as the much-briefer 1947. In 2014, the government’s press release announcing the helpline says that both numbers should work. In a 2013 circular, the previous government also issued a circular to all telcos instructing them to map 1947 to the UIDAI’s helpline. That means that Google coded this older number after it was already redundant.
Google said that the next version of their SetUp software for phone makers will fix this problem. It’s unclear if the update will retroactively remove the UIDAI number from handsets, or simply remove that piece of code from the setup. If it’s the latter, the number will remain on all the phones it is on. Even users who have switched to iOS will be carrying that contact with them, since the entire phonebook is usually transferred when people switch phones. While this is not harmful per se — rumours of the UIDAI hacking into phones are obviously false — it is unnerving for the number being included without consent in most smartphones in the country.
UIDAI made two statements, one on Friday denying that they inserted the number in users’ phones, and another on Sunday defending the Aadhaar project as a whole. “It must be clearly understood that by merely having a helpline number that, too, an outdated one, on a mobile/smartphone, no harm can be caused,” the authority said in a statement. “Just by a helpline number in a mobile’s contact list the data stored on the mobile phone cannot be stolen.”
“Therefore, there should be no panic to delete the number as no harm will be caused,” the statement says. “Rather people may, if they so wish, update it with UIDAI’s new helpline number 1947.”