Aadhaar: Why Is Google Again Sneaking UIDAI's Helpline Number into Mobile Phones?
Google India, which had apologised in August for 'inadvertently coding' the helpline number of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), continues to insert the 1800-300-1947 helpline number in the contact list of the newly introduced mobile phones and operating systems (OS).
In a tweet, one Jishu, who claims to be a software enthusiast and to have developed an Indic keyboard, says he found the UIDAI helpline number in the newly introduced Google Pixel 3 mobile phone. Interestingly, Google will be releasing its Pixel 3 in India by the end of this month.
Earlier in August, after the challenge from RS Sharma, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to harm him through his Aadhaar number, French hacker Elliot Alderson (@fs0c131y) asked people on Twitter if they had the UIDAI helpline in their phonebooks.
While some mobile phones, like Realme from Oppo, certainly come preloaded with the UIDAI number, some people found this number when they updated the software of their mobile devices from Motorola, OnePlus, Samsung and Nokia. A few users of iPhone also found this helpline number on their mobiles.
Interestingly, this 'default' helpline number, 1800-300-1947, found in mobile phones is 'temporarily not available' as UIDAI uses 1947 as its toll-free helpline number.
After a furore on social media about sneaking the UIDAI helpline into the contact lists without the knowledge of the user, UIDAI distanced itself from the number controversy. However, Google came forward and took the blame.
It stated that, in 2014, the UIDAI helpline number was 'inadvertently coded' in the Android release given to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or mobile makers.
"Our internal review has revealed that in 2014, the then UIDAI helpline number and the 112 distress helpline number were both inadvertently coded into the set up wizard of the Android release given to OEMs for use in India and have remained there since. Since the numbers get listed on a user's contact list, these get transferred accordingly to the contacts on any new device," Google had said in a statement.
This clarification from Google, however, is still hard to believe, at least for people who know how government or the authorities operate. Even if we were to accept Google's clarification, there are some issues with it. How was the UIDAI helpline number revealed only in 2018 and not earlier? And how was this helpline number still there in the system of other manufacturers, who do not use stock Android? Many mobile handset manufacturers make certain changes, add some apps of their own (often referred to as bloatwares) and only then allow their users to use or update handset and the OS.
One person, Anand, said on Twitter that he bought his mobile phone in the US and was using services from a local operator there and yet found the UIDAI helpline number in his contact list. He says, "Is Google saying they distributed that OEM on US shores? I have never bought a smartphone in India. I am asking Google to tell me which OEM inadvertently added this contact into my phone in US."
As expected, the blame game during August lasted for few days. However, what Jishu had revealed about the recurrence of the UIDAI helpline number in the new handset from Google, appears to be a deliberate attempt from vested interests.
A more serious question that needs an answer from all players, including government authorities and Google, is: What is the security and protection offered to common users? If anyone can push certain number on any mobile device without the knowledge and explicit consent of the users, what stops them from extracting personal details and data of the same user?
Nothing, unfortunately, at least at present, prevents these players from accessing all information from a mobile handset.
Do mobile customers need to approach courts to get justice from such unwarranted invasion in their privacy like the Aadhaar case? In the Aadhaar case, the Supreme Court had already struck down Section 57 that had allowed private entities like banks and mobile operators to mandate Aadhaar from users.
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