The UIDAI has authorised Common Service Centres (CSCs) to resume Aadhaar-related services “in a week”, reports the Economic Times, meaning people in rural areas will be soon be able to more easily access services such as train bookings, and registrations for voter IDs cards, PAN cards, birth and death certificates, and more. And by the end of the month CSCs will also be able to update demographic details of Aadhaar users, the report quoted CSC e-Governance Services CEO Dinesh Tyagi as saying. There are 3.9 lakh CSCs across the country. CSCs had enrolled over 19 crore people into the Aadhaar program since its launch, but had stopped functioning after UIDAI decided not to renew its MoU with them in February 2018 (see letter below), citing corruption complaints and violation of the enrolment process as reasons. Interestingly, both UIDAI and CSC e-Governance Services fall under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY).

CSCs, which predate Aadhaar, were meant to bring an end to long queues at government offices and the beginning of rural entrepreneurship before they became mired in corruption. That they will resume functioning is good news for people in rural areas, who won’t have to travel long distances to avail government services, but it also brings privacy concerns, given that CSCs were shut down to ensure the safety of people’s biometric data. The government has so far said nothing about how it plans to tackle corruption in CSCs and prevent people’s data from being compromised.

Journalist bought access to entire Aadhaar database for Rs 500

In January 2018, The Tribune newspaper said it had paid “anonymous sellers over WhatsApp” a mere Rs 500 for a service that gave it unrestricted access to details – including name, address, postal code, photo, phone number and email – of the more than one billion people registered on Aadhaar. It took the “agent” running the racket just 10 minutes to create a gateway, login ID and password for the paper’s correspondent to access the data. For another Rs 300, the agent provided “software” that could enable printing the Aadhaar card of any person. When The Tribune contacted them, UIDAI officials in Chandigarh said they were shocked that the full data could be accessed in this way and admitted that it seemed to be a “major national security breach”.

Around the same time, The Wire had reported that unscrupulous behaviour by private enrolment partners meant that a Pakistani spy and ‘Lord Hanuman’ were not just able to gain Aadhaar numbers but also link them to LPG connections. And in March 2017, the personal Aadhaar details of cricket captain MS Dhoni were made public by a VLE operator after the CSC e-gov handle publicly tweeted it, prompting his wife Sakshi Singh to take up the matter with Union Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad on Twitter.

3 lakh VLEs threatened to go on strike

Each CSC is headed by a ‘village-level entrepreneur’ (VLE). Last November, 3 lakh VLEs threatened to go on strike to protest UIDAI’s decision to on-board private players for Aadhaar enrolment, per BusinessLine. This forced Ravi Shankar Prasad to clarify that the government was working on a way out of the impasse. He said the government would “certainly do something so that you all continue to be connected with the public, training, Aadhaar security and Aadhaar updation”. In January, Anurag Singh Thakur, then head of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology, asked Prasad to restart Aadhaar services across CSCs. He said the discontinuation of CSCs had caused significant financial difficulty to people in rural areas, especially those that had invested in expensive biometric equipment and manpower to carry out Aadhaar work.