Alleged breach of India's biometric database could put 1.2bn users at risk

New Delhi (CNN)The Indian government has announced new security measures following reports of an alleged security breach in the country's vast biometric database, which contains the personal details of 1.2 billion Indian citizens.

The announcement comes a full seven days after journalist Rachna Khaira first identified the alleged breach in an article in the Tribune newspaper, in which it was claimed reporters were able to buy access to citizens' personal details, such as names, addresses, phone numbers and even photos, via an anonymous WhatsApp account for as little as $8.
The database, known officially as Aadhaar, was launched in 2009 as a voluntary program intended to help prevent benefit fraud, it has since grown, and is now home to the collected data -- including fingerprints and iris scans -- of more than a billion Indians, or upwards of 90% of the entire population.
Users are issued with a personal 12-digit identity number which they can then use to access welfare payments, and other government controlled services.
    Authorities have been widely criticized for their handling of the allegations, which if proven correct, could expose users to identity fraud and privacy invasions.
    The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which is responsible for maintaining the database, initially denied the claims, dismissing the Tribune story as "clearly a case of misreporting being incorrect and misleading."
    This was followed by a tweet from the official account of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) referring to the report as "fake news," last Thursday.
    A day after Khaira's report, the UIDAI filed a police complaint against her, the Tribune newspaper, and the anonymous individuals who allegedly provided them with access to the database, a move that served only to inflame the crisis further, and stoke wider concerns over diminishing press freedoms.
    Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Paris-based NGO which publishes an annual index of press freedom, last year ranked India at 136 out of 180 countries, down 3 places from the previous year, and lagging behind the likes of Myanmar, Colombia and even Zimbabwe.
    The controversy led Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor and high profile whistle blower, to weigh in with a tweet offering his support to Khaira, Tuesday.
    "The journalists exposing the #Aadhaar breach deserve an award, not an investigation. If the government were truly concerned for justice, they would be reforming the policies that destroyed the privacy of a billion Indians. Want to arrest those responsible? They are called @UIDAI," said Snowden.
    The agency quickly backtracked, and by late Tuesday afternoon had tweeted its support for press freedoms and its apparent willingness to work with the Tribune to investigate the problem.
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