The personal data of more than one billion Indians – including thumb prints and retina scans – can be bought online for less than £6, according to an investigation by Indian newspaper Tribune.
The data is stored in what may be the world’s largest state-run biometric database, called Aadhaar; it collects photographs, as well as the thumb prints, retina scans and other identifying information of every Indian citizen.
Tribune suggested that software is also being sold online that can generate fake Aadhaar cards, an identity document that is required to access an increasing number of government services, including free meals.
However, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which runs the Aadhar system, said that the newspaper had accessed only limited details through a search function that was only made available to government officials.
It claimed it would press charges against those that had used the system inappropriately, but insisted that thumbprints and retina scans were not accessed.
“Mere display of demographic information cannot be misused without biometrics,” it claimed in a statement.
“Claims of bypassing or duping the Aadhaar enrolment system are totally unfounded. Aadhaar data is fully safe and secure and has robust, uncompromised security,” it continued.
But the Tribune newspaper claimed that details of an account that enabled access to the database was being sold anonymously over WhatsApp for just 500 rupees – about £5.80. This included personal data, such as names, home addresses, email addresses, photographs and phone numbers.
It claimed that it purchased the code and was able to access the data, as well as the software that enables users to print fake Aadhaar cards.
The report, however, has not yet been verified by any other publications.
Aadhaar has been embroiled in controversy before: in November, government agencies published the Aadhaar numbers of citizens, along with addresses and bank details. UIDAI said this was inadvertent and that the details were removed as soon as the breach became apparent
India’s government believes the database will help to incorporate a large number of Indians into the digital economy but critics believe that the benefits of such a system are overstated and constantly at risk of a security breach.