Just days after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) Chairman got social media in a tizzy by sharing his Aadhaar number on Twitter and challenging people to “harm him”, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which runs the Aadhaar project, found itself being questioned on social media on Thursday again. This time it was due to the revelation that the UIDAI’s helpline number is being saved by default in people’s phone contact list on most Android phones.
The issue gained prominence when French hacker Robert Baptiste who goes by a pseudonym Elliot Baptiste asked people on Twitter if they had the UIDAI helpline in their phonebooks. Within hours, hundreds posted screenshots and confirmed it was indeed the case for Android phones, even as they questioned the protocol through which the UIDAI number got into their phonebooks without their explicit consent.
“Many people, with different provider, with and without an #Aadhaar card, with and without the mAadhaar app installed, noticed that your phone number is predefined in their contact list by default and so without their knowledge. Can you explain why?” Baptiste tweeted, while tagging the official UIDAI handle.
Baptiste Baptiste had earlier pointed out that having the UIDAI helpline (1800-300-1947) could just be “the tip of the iceberg”, hinting there could be additional data or trackers on Indian phone manufacturers’ devices.
While it could not be independently confirmed with the phone manufacturers as to how the helpline was pre-saved on their phones, Business Standard reviewed handsets from Motorola, OnePlus, Samsung, and Nokia, which had the same number automatically in the phonebooks.
On Twitter, people raised this concern to the authority and asked how the number got into their phones.
“Why is this on my phone? I don’t even have an #Aadhaar,” tweeted Rachita (@visualfumble), who claimed she did not even have an Aadhaar number.
Meanwhile, the UIDAI did not respond to Business Standard’s queries sent over email and text messages. A source in the authority, however, said there has been no communication from the UIDAI in this regard and the phone manufacturers must have found the helpline number to be as useful as the emergency number.
That seems unlikely. Other important numbers such as women’s helpline and fire emergency are not added automatically, said Arnav Gupta, co-founder at Coding Blocks, who had earlier worked at Micromax developing handsets.
“Every Android phone tries to connect to the internet and as soon as it does, it downloads a basic list of emergency contacts of each country. In India, it is distress number 112 and the UIDAI helpline,” said Gupta.
He explained that the government would have had to issue some guidelines to phone manufacturers to download this specific number, even as some operators seemed to be loading the UIDAI helpline in the SIM card as well.
“I tested it with various countries’ virtual private networks and the numbers change in every country. A phone company is not the one making decisions as to what to load and what not to. Samsung devices, for instance, come with the UIDAI number out of the box and so do Airtel and Vodafone SIM cards in some cases,” he added.
The source added that 1800-300-1947 is actually an old number that does not work. The new helpline is 1947.