Aadhaar Helpline Number Mystery: Is Google being made the scapegoat?
The mystery of Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) helpline number 1800-300-1947 found in contact lists on Android mobile phones is deepening day by day. While UIDAI tried to distance itself from the helpline number controversy, Google is taking the blame. It stated, in 2014, the UIDAI helpline number was 'inadvertently coded' in Android release given to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or mobile makers. This, however, raises questions, as to why and how this number 'inadvertently coded' in 2014, started appearing in mobile phone contacts only in 2018? 
 
On Friday night, in order to douse the fire, Google issued a statement taking the blame on itself. It says, "Our internal review has revealed that in 2014, the then UIDAI helpline number and the 112 distress helpline number were inadvertently coded into the set up wizard of the Android release give 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"
 
 
This clarification from Google, however, is hard to believe, at least for people who knew how government or the authorities operate. Even if we were to accept Google's clarification, there are three major issues with it. One, how Google knew about mapping 112 as common emergency or distress number in 2014, when actual order from DoT to embed this number came only on 4 May 2016? Secondly, how the UIDAI helpline number was revealed only in 2018 and not from 2014? And lastly, except few, none of the mobile makers provide 'stock' Android operating system (OS) to users. They all make certain changes, add some apps of their own (often referred as bloatwares) and then only allow their users to update the OS. Some users like me, who use customised OS, are also saved from this unnecessary peeping UIDAI helpline number on our mobile phones. 
 
Here is an order issued by DoT to all access service provided about implementing 'single number based integrated emergency communication and response system'. It clearly says, the single number for all emergencies would be 112 and should be mapped with the panic or alert button in all mobile phones from 1 January 2017.
 
 
 
In addition, there is a circular issued by DoT on 30 August 2013 to all access service providers to map 1947 short code to UIDAI to UIDAI's "new toll free number 1800-300-1947 with immediate effect" and send compliance report directly to UIDAI. This was well before even passing the Aadhaar Act!
 
 
While this circular supports what Google has said, it does not answer why the helpline contact number remained hidden over the past four years and how it started appearing only in 2018.
 
French security expert, who goes by the name Elliot Alderson (@fs0c131y) also revealed code used by Google in its setup wizard. 
 
 
One person Anand, who said on Twitter that he bought his mobile phone in the US and 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 which OEM inadvertently added this contact on my phone in US?"
 
 
As reported by Moneylife, in March 2016, as per suggestion from the TRAI, the Telecom Commission allowed use of 112 as single emergency number for all services like police, fire and ambulance. In addition, some emergency numbers, which are allowed in India, are 100 for Police, 101 for fire, 102 for ambulance, 108 for disaster management, 181 for women's helpline, 182 for Railway helpline, 1097 for AIDS helpline, and 1098 for child helpline. 
 
The Department of Telecom (DoT) then directed all telecom service providers to map 112, the single emergency number with existing emergency numbers in all states and union territories. The project was to be made operational by all States and UTs under the supervision of Ministry of Home Affairs through Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). However, there was no mention of UIDAI helpline number in any of these mandatory contact numbers in any mobile phones or on the SIM cards. (Read: Aadhaar: Who is pushing UIDAI helpline number on your mobile phones without consent?)
 
Distancing itself from the controversy, UIDAI in a statement on Twitter, clarified that 18003001947 is not its valid toll free number and some vested interest are trying to create unwarranted confusion in the public. "UIDAI has not asked or communicated to any manufacturer or service provider for providing any such facility whatsoever. We have not asked or advised anyone including any telecom service providers or mobile manufacturers or Android to include 1800-300-1947 or 1947 in the default list of public service numbers," it added. 
 
The blame game is most likely to continue for next few days, if not months, and we most probably will never know all facts. However, more serious question that needs 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. Well, at least till the matter knocks doors of the Supreme Court, which may rule in favour of the common user and provide justice and reprieve. 
 
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