Yesterday, social media was abuzz with news of people finding a number for UIDAI in their contact list despite not having added it or granting explicit consent.
Admittedly, Aadhaar’s governing body has been in the news for all the wrong reasons lately, but on this occasion, it wasn’t at fault. Hours after they denied any involvement in surreptitiously adding their contact number or forcing smartphone manufacturers or telecom service providers to do so, Google officially took the blame.
The tech giant admitted to “inadvertently” coding the 112-distress number and the UIDAI number into its set up wizard for Android phones.
“Our internal review has revealed that in 2014, the then UIDAI helpline number and the 112 distress helpline number were inadvertently coded into the SetUp 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,” said Google.
Apologising for “any concern that this might have caused,” a Google spokesperson said it “would like to assure everyone that this is not a situation of unauthorised access of their Android devices,” while adding that “users can manually delete the number from their devices.”
Meanwhile, the US tech giant spoke of fixing this problem in the “upcoming release of SetUp wizard which will be made available to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) over the next few weeks.”
However, this did not answer the question many iPhone users have about how that number crept into their contact list. According to The Indian Express, one possible explanation is that “most users have their Apple phones synced to Gmail accounts which might have used Android devices at some point.”
In fact, if you sift through your Google Contacts, you are likely to find the UIDAI email, even though no mail has been sent to the same address—email@example.com.
Google reportedly synced the email ID in April 2014.
Meanwhile, the UIDAI responded to Google’s statement in a tweet and said:
“In the wake of some media reports on the default inclusion of UIDAI’s outdated & invalid toll-free no. 1800-300-1947 in the contact list of Android phones, it is clarified that UIDAI has not asked or communicated to any manufacturer or service provider for providing any such facility whatsoever.
It is emphasised that the said 18003001947 is not a valid UIDAI Toll-free number and some vested interests are trying to create unwarranted confusion among the public.”
The official helpline number for Aadhaar is 1947.
Despite these clarifications, it is imperative to note that such attempts to surreptitiously add the contact number of, say UIDAI, could be done by telecom service providers, smartphone manufacturers and operative system (OS) providers like Google and Apple.
While we’ve seen how Google admitted to the whole incident, experts contend that telecom providers like Airtel or Vodafone could do the same.
“They can do it using the unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) technology. USSD is a communication technology that is used to send ta ext between a mobile phone and an application program in the network. USSD is what service providers like Reliance Jio, Airtel and Vodafone would use when they want to keep their customer care numbers, fire or distress numbers as default on your phone,” said Vinod Senthil, the CEO of a network security audit firm, to the Times of India.
Meanwhile, many data security experts have also raised the possibility of mobile phone manufacturers adding these numbers through their default factory setting.
“I was puzzled when I first spotted this in Samsung, Xiaomi and Micromax mobiles. I wondered if it was the SIM (citing the involvement of telecom service providers). So, I removed the SIM, did a factory reset on my phone, turned off the Wi-Fi and still the UIDAI number popped up. I tested it again on my friend’s phone similarly. Again, the UIDAI number was there,” said Anivar Arvind, a data security expert, to the Times of India.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)