Peeping Shankar | When bureaucrats wanted to make public their Aadhaar number 

Electronic surveillance ensures that hackers don’t compromise Aadhaar data of errant bureaucrats, and how the IB saved the US from a demographic disaster

Though it has a dozen proud alphabets (four vowels and eight consonants), surveillance, for all practical purposes has the degraded status of a four-letter word. Curiously, conventional methods of keeping watch like shadowing or tailing, provided they are harmless and does not amount to harassment, are largely seen as acceptable because the victim can turn around, and nine times out of ten, spot who is following him or her and take evasive action. Moreover, there are some who find the entire exercise amusing (akin to playing hide-and-seek) and derive immense satisfaction hoodwinking the sod tasked with following them. Still others take pride in the fact that despite being unpopular they have at least one follower!

However, electronic surveillance of any kind, particularly phone tapping, is a totally different ballgame. It is seen as a reprehensible activity akin to secretly overhearing a conversation. In fact, anyone who owns a mobile will agree that tapping must be added to the ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ commandment or other equivalent religious dos and don’ts if it were possible to amend holy edicts. And you can bet your last buck that those who disagree with this proposition will either be the ones who only receive calls from tele-marketeers or sleuths whose business it is to bug communication devices.

That said, monitoring phones for all intelligence agencies is an essential tool simply because it reveals what X told Y. Shadowing can merely tell you where X or Y went or where and when they met. It cannot reveal what’s on their minds or why they despise health food as much as Delhi’s heat. That’s why among us sleuths, it is said that overhearing, not seeing, is believing. Suffice to say that what we often learn is gleaned from what others say.

In my early years in the profession, I became a specialist of sorts in tapping, earning myself the sobriquet 'Phony,' which later changed to Peeping Shankar, thanks to one of my bosses. He saw in me a desi version of the archetypal curious Tom from the pages of medieval British folklore. Why, he even regaled us with the story of Lady Godiva, the wife of Leofri, Earl of Mercia, who rode naked on horseback through Coventry to get a remission on the high taxes imposed on peasants by her husband. But before she set out on her daring adventure, the townspeople were beseeched to stay indoors with their eyes shut. However, Tom, a local tailor, disobeyed the royal request and took a peep and witnessed the spectacle.

That bit of legend aside, all of last week I was back to my old phony ways as I randomly tapped the mobiles of bureaucrats in Delhi. Don’t ask me why I did it. It was just on a whim, but my effort yielded results and helped the IB take corrective action in good time. "Firefighting often begins with phone tapping," is how my current boss put it as he congratulated me for showing initiative after he read my weekly report.

Here are excerpts from that same classified document for readers to draw, scribble or paint their own conclusions:

Shankar’s Weekly Update
The Aadhaar Challenge:
Forty-eight hours of surveillance of the personal mobile phones of 20 bureaucrats in Delhi and Mumbai threw up this revelation: twelve of them (60%) were actively considering going public on social media with their Aadhaar numbers and challenging hackers to steal their personal data. The other (40%) were happy to discuss the possibility of scripting crime thrillers for Ram Gopal Varma from NITI Aayog reports.

The decision by the 60% to reveal their 12-digit identity, one learns from their telephonic conversations with friends or messages left on answering machines, was inspired by RS Sharma, the chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and who was earlier the head of the UIDAI. The last-mentioned organisation, as we all know, is the one that collects, administers and supposedly ensures the security (or insecurity) of Aadhaar identity information and authentication records of citizens.

So, what did Mr Sharma do to fire the imagination of the bureaucrats? Well, on July 28 he created history of sorts while responding to @kingslyj on Twitter who dared him “Publish your Aadhaar details if you have so much trust in your 13 ft wall secured system.” Not one to take such provocation lightly, Sharma lost no time in making his Aadhaar number (7621 7798 2740) public and tweeted: “Now I give this challenge to you: Show me one concrete example where you can do any harm to me!”

He became an instant celebrity with his tweet going viral on the micro-blogging site. Hackers from the world over vied to be first to cause him harm. Unconfirmed reports even pointed to retired boxers and jaded judo exponents showing a keenness to flex their muscles. Simultaneously, parents were in competition with each other to name their new born after the 12-digit number but opted out after they realised there was nothing unique about it.

That trivia apart, what the IB discovered from its intense surveillance and analysis was that the 12 bureaucrats wished to follow in the footsteps of the TRAI chairman for the following reasons:

* Tweeting Aadhaar numbers is a lot more rewarding and is likely to score more “likes” than retweeting dull PR nuggets from the PMO or from the BJP’s IT Cell.

* Going public with the 12-digit ID number guarantees instant media attention and bestows celebrity/Twitterati status.

* Like in Mr Sharma’s case, prominent hackers like Elliot Alderson alias Robert Baptiste, who have long been targeting Aadhaar, will become committed followers.

* There is every possibility of being invited to write on the edit page of prominent newspapers. (Sharma penned Why I gave out my Aadhaar number in the Indian Express on August 1 within days of tweeting his 12-digit ID).

* TV interviews and being invited to participate in prime time discussions are other promising outcomes.

Action Taken: Since reckless sharing of Aadhaar numbers on social media constitutes a security threat, we decided to act. So, as a preventive measure, our operatives, employing guile and ingenuity, managed to secure the Aadhaar cards of the errant dozen and replaced them with replicas, sporting fake, though equally unique, 12-digit numbers.

The originals are currently in our custody. The dirty dozen are now free to go public with their ID numbers without causing harm or triggering any security breach. As for the hackers, they will get nowhere working, as they will, with fake ID numbers. The success of our operation is reflected in the fact that none of the said bureaucrats noticed that their Aadhaar cards had been substituted. Neither have they reported any identity crisis. Perhaps, twelve digits, are one too many to commit to memory or one set of numbers is as good as another.

A Demographic Disaster Averted: While on my tapping spree, I also kept the mobile phones of officials connected with the National Registry for Citizens (NRC) Assam under surveillance. And pray, why did I do something like that? Well, this time on a hunch since I cannot always act on a whim, can I? The move, nevertheless yielded unlikely results and helped the IB avert a possible demographic disaster in the United States.

It all started with my attention being drawn to frequent calls from Washington DC to a census official in Delhi who worked on the NRC update. Investigations revealed that the person at the other end of the line was not an NRI with a put-on American accent, but a White House official trying to fake Indian English. Anyhow, more than his diction and intonation, it was the advice he was seeking that made my ears cock up.

In a nutshell, our enthusiastic friend from Washington wanted tips on how the US population could be trimmed systematically and effectively. He was obviously impressed by the recent exercise conducted in Assam which rendered 45 lakh citizens stateless. “Our Prez wants immigrants out of the country and realises that his initiative against Mexicans alone is not enough. We have to do something drastic like you fellas have done,” he said over long distance.

Following that, in a series of calls stretching over four hours, the two evolved a devious action plan for the US based on the Assam Model. It ran something like this:

* Announce the setting up of a US registry, akin to the one in Assam, which will list the names of all legitimate citizens.

* Make it mandatory for those who wish to be included in the registry to trace their ancestry to persons domiciled on or before July 4, 1776, the day the Declaration of Independence was ratified.

* Insist on submission of documentary evidence to support their claim.

* Applicants whose forefathers arrived after the cut off date must provide proof that the latter planned to reach the US on time for the Declaration but missed the boat or were inordinately delayed due to rough seas. However, this grace period should not be extended beyond July 4, 1776.

* Allow Native Indians to trace their ancestry with the help of the Legacy Document — a database of pre-Columbian American population — which lists the names of citizens already domiciled before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.

* Set the midnight of July 4, 2019 as the deadline for receiving applications.

* Cancel the citizenship of persons whose applications are rejected for lack of proper documentation.

* Prepare to deport a sizeable chunk of the current population back to the country of their origin.

Action Taken: Since this was a sensitive issue involving a foreign power, we thought it was in order to seek the assistance of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the agency that handles external intelligence. Through their good offices, we sent a series of coded tweets to @SamChacha (the secret Twitter handle of the CIA for India) in which we spelt out the dangers of drastically altering the demography. Our case was this: at the time of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the population was 2.5 million. If one were to fix that as the cut off year for determining citizenship, then the US population will decline from the current 327 million to less than a 100 million. This in turn would have serious economic and social consequences and would weaken, not strengthen, America. The deported citizens would have to be called back to stabilise the situation.

The RAW thought our analysis was spot on. But did Uncle Sam heed our advice? Well, the CIA thanked us for our timely inputs which, it said, had been duly passed on to the White House. We are still awaiting a response from @realDonaldTrump. It remains to be seen if he will surprise us.

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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