India withdraws warning on national biometric ID after online panic

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A woman goes through the process of scanning her fingers for the Unique Identification Database (UID) system, also known as Aadhaar, at a registration center in New Delhi, India, January 17 2018. REUTERS/Saumya Khandelwal/File Photo

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NEW DELHI, May 29 (Reuters) – India on Sunday withdrew its warning not to share photocopies of the national biometric identity card after the announcement sparked widespread panic on social media.

The Aadhaar card, which has a unique number linked to an individual’s fingerprints, face and eyes, aims to block theft and leaks in India’s welfare programs. But critics fear it could spawn a surveillance state.

The Press Information Office withdrew the warning two days after issuing it, saying the statement was issued in the context of an attempted misuse of an edited Aadhaar map and that it was withdrawn “in view of the possibility of misinterpretation”.

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The new statement says that the Aadhaar ecosystem has adequate features to protect user identity and privacy, and that users are only advised to exercise “normal caution”.

Friday’s announcement had advised people not to share photocopies of their Aadhaar with any organization as it could be misused. “Unlicensed private entities like hotels or movie theaters are not permitted to collect or retain copies of the Aadhaar card,” the initial statement read.

The warning sparked alarm on social media as screenshots of the press release and news articles went viral, with the issue among India’s top 10 trending topics on Twitter on Sunday.

“I might have stayed in almost 100 hotels that kept a copy of my Aadhar! Now this,” Twitter user @_NairFYI said.

The Unique Identification Authority of India says among its Frequently Asked Questions, “It is almost impossible to impersonate you if you use Aadhar to prove your identity.”

“People freely gave away other identity documents. But did they stop using these documents for fear that someone would use them to impersonate them? No!” it says.

In 2018, India’s Supreme Court upheld the validity of Aadhaar, but flagged privacy concerns and stalled government efforts to make it mandatory for everything from banking to telecommunications services.

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Reporting by Sudarshan Varadhan and Munsif Vengattil; Editing by William Mallard

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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