Government Tech: The breach of India’s national ID database Aadhaar raises concerns as to whether governments are equipped to deal appropriately with today’s cybersecurity landscape
Gabrielle Orum Hernández | Legaltech News
In 2009, Indian officials first pitched the idea for Aadhaar, an online national identification system containing personal and biometric information. It was touted as a “turbocharged version of the Social Security number,” a database that could act as a digital cure for identity fraud and make identity verification an easier and more streamlined process. In the last eight years of its operation, Aadhaar has been both widely expanded to integrate with tons of government and online services, and widely criticized as a privacy risk for Indian nationals if it were to be hacked.
As feared, earlier this month Indian newspaper The Tribune announced that it had successfully breached the controversial national database, exposing data for upward of 1.2 billion Indian nationals. The newspaper reportedly paid a hacker the equivalent of $8 to create a login that would allow reporters at the Tribune to access information for all registered members of the database. A second news outlet, The Quint, found another vulnerability in the system allowing existing administrators to offer any person new administrator credentials to the database.
And Indian officials are not alone. Governments’ efforts to bring their resources into the digital era, particularly with databases of consumer information, are increasingly running into concerns about cybersecurity.
Craig A. Newman, partner with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, noted that storing collections of personal data lacking in basic data security protocols is not a particularly viable posture in today’s cybersecurity landscape. “A database like Aadhaar is a virtual stockpile of confidential information including photos, fingerprints and retina scans. Whenever that type of data is aggregated in a single place, implementing robust and layered data security safeguards is a must.”
The private sector has learned this lesson the hard way over the last few years. 2017 alone saw data breaches at many of the most well-resourced companies in the United States, companies like PayPal, Equifax and Yahoo. The scope of those breaches seems to have grown as well, with Equifax’s breach affecting over 145 million customers, and Yahoo’s breach revealed to have affected all 3 billion of their account holders.
“The government is no different,” Newman said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s public or private sector—hackers follow the money and data,” he later added.
Indeed, U.S. government agencies seem to have become just as fruitful a target for hackers as private corporations. Last year also saw major hacks at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Office of Personnel Management (OPM), both agencies that may not necessarily inspire much concern about cybersecurity risk at face value. 2016 also saw a reported 30,899 cyber incidents and 16 major incidents at federal agencies that compromised data.
Even when hackers don’t intentionally target agencies, human error issues can put private consumer or employee data at risk of exposure. In early January, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) confirmed that a former employee retained access to nearly 240,000 current and former employees’ personal information.
Although consumers affected by government data breaches theoretically have the ability to seek legal recourse, U.S. courts so far haven’t shown much interest in validating standing for lawsuits.
“It’s been tough for individuals to sue the government when their data is breached. Similar to the private sector, these individuals have had difficulty establishing that they have the legal standing—or in other words, have suffered concrete harm or injury—sufficient to pursue a lawsuit. The class actions filed against the Office of Personnel Management were dismissed on precisely these grounds,” Newman noted.
Andrew Grotto, an international security fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and former senior director of cybersecurity policy at the White House, noted that both resource allocation and organizational policy shape the likelihood of data exposure at U.S. government agencies, something that varies widely across agencies.
“I wouldn’t lump not even all agencies within the U.S. federal government together. There are some that are better than others. Some of it is resources, but a lot of it is management culture. But resources really do matter, especially when you get into state and local governments,” Grotto said.
Grotto was part of a group of nine former national security and technology officials who filed an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit concerning privacy concerns over the U.S. Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity’s proposed effort to consolidate U.S. voter information into a national database. The group wrote that the proposed database posed a “grave vulnerability” to hacking by foreign actors.
President Donald Trump announced last week via Twitter that he would disband the commission, and Department of Justice operatives this week stated their intent to destroy, rather than archive or transfer, the voter data collected by the commission to date.
Grotto voiced concern about the voter information database because he felt that the risk of cyberattack would likely outgun even the best U.S. cybersecurity resources. “The risk is high. Even with world-class protections around it, there would be a lot of foreign government and criminal actors and others who would love to get their hands on this data,” he said.
It’s not always the case that aggregating government data poses too great a cybersecurity risk. Other government data centralization projects do propose some important benefits to agencies and residents. Data aggregation can help with agency collaboration and efficiency, research, and a whole host of other core government functions. It can even be a way to bolster cybersecurity, as with DHS’s EINSTEIN program that detects potential threats in agency web traffic.
“I wouldn’t lump not even all agencies within the U.S. federal government together. There are some that are better than others. Some of it is resources, but a lot of it is management culture. But resources really do matter, especially when you get into state and local governments,”
With any large government data centralization project, Grotto said, it all comes down to managing cyber risk. “Managing cyber risk is just about evaluating the costs, benefits and the risks,” he noted.
Failure to appropriately evaluate those risks, however, can expose a great deal of private information. Grotto noted that U.S. privacy law shapes data security conversations slightly differently than other parts of the world. While European models tend to uphold privacy as a fundamental right, “In the U.S., we have a very pragmatic balancing type test where we balance interests. It’s not a fundamental right in the same way,” Grotto explained.