Trans Union Story

Genesis of Aadhaar

Amitava Choudhury

Nowadays every individual, every institution and every country builds one's own data bank according to one's needs. They retrieve information from the data bank and use those as and when required. The Credit Information Bureau of India Limited (CIBIL) is one such data bank which was set up in 2000 following the recommendation of the Siddiqui Committee of the Reserve Bank of India. Its function is to store detailed information about all bank customers and provide it to the banks when they need it. It was built mainly to take an effective step to check bad loans or non-performing assets. A company called Trans Union was appointed as consultant at that time. It is necessary to know a few facts about this Trans Union.

Trans Union is an American company. When it was founded in 1968, it was named Union Tank Car Company and was known as a railroad leasing organisation. Later, it became Trans Union after the acquisition of Credit Bureau of Cook County and spread across the world. Its business is to provide credit information. Trans Union's head office is at Illinois, Chicago. At present, it provides credit information and information management services to about 45,000 businesses and 500 million consumers in 33 countries. In 2014, its revenue was US$ 1.3 billion.

Initially, all of CIBIL's 2.5 crore shares were held by nationalised as well as private banks and other financial institutions. CIBIL's AGM report of 25.06.2004 first referred to Trans Union, which held its 25 lakh shares worth Rs 25,00,000. But at the time of the next two AGMs held on 08.07.2015 and 19.07.2016, the number of shares with Trans Union rose to 1,30,50,000 and 1,65,25,000 respectively. Another fact worth noting is that at the time of CIBIL's 25.06.2004 AGM when Trans Union had 25 lakh shares, the State Bank of India's share was 1 crore. By the time of the 2016 AGM, the SBI's share became zero. All of it had been sold off.

In 2012, the Central Information Commission organised a two-day international seminar in Delhi. In his inaugural address, the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh reminded all information commissioners and right to information activists that the right to privacy was as important as the right to information and could not be taken away. Not only he, but many people stressed its importance. And now the Supreme Court has declared it a fundamental right. Everybody knows that a process of collecting information about the people of the country has been going on for a long time, which is the census. The information emerging out of this process is published every 10 years and the government takes measures according to it. The Aadhaar card is the latest development in this process of collecting information, through which all personal data about an individual will be in possession of the government. At first it was voluntary and one could refrain from getting an Aadhaar card made if one did not want to hand over personal information to the government. But the situation changed after the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came to power and now it is gradually being made mandatory. Despite strong protests from the public, the government is firm in its position. Initially only government subsidies were made dependent on Aadhaar, but now it is being made mandatory in respect of every entitlement of a citizen, such as getting a passport or a PAN card, filing income tax return, opening bank account and even subscribing to mobile telephone services. Some people have also moved the Supreme Court against it. Although the government has stumbled a little, it continues coaxing the common people who do not have the capacity to go up to the court for a remedy.

Things have come to such a pass that CIBIL has changed its very identity. It is now CIBIL Trans Union, a subsidiary of the American company. But, it still retains its old role as a repository of all information about bank customers all over the country. And not only information about their transactions with the banks, since Aadhaar cards have been almost compulsorily linked with bank accounts, all their personal data, even biometric data, are now in the hands of the American company Trans Union. Almost everybody in India has a bank account now, be it for business or for getting educational scholarship, widow pension, old-age pension, 100 days' work or whatever. One can no longer escape having a bank passbook and having a bank passbook means falling into the net of Trans Union. And this incredible, illogical thing is happening with total government sanction. A huge, unprecedented data bank has come up with the information from all bank accounts and all Aadhaar cards in the country. And this data bank is now in the hands of Trans Union, which is not only a foreign company, but has been fined by US courts twice—US$ 5.3 million in 2003 and US$ 351,000 in 2006—for being involved in dubious and illegal deals. One shudders to think to whose hands Indians’ data can pass on from Trans Union and to what ends they can use those data, particularly when today one is facing hostility not only from extremists or external aggressors, but also from various divisive forces within the country.

It’s urgently needed to build resistance in whichever way one can to save the country and its people from the clutches of Trans Union.

A front page news item in The Times of India of 26 August 2017 was titled, ‘CIA has access to Aadhaar data : Wiki’. The news said: (1) Wikileaks had firmly stood by its claim, (2) the CIA had denied it, (3) those who were said to have helped the CIA to get access to these data had also denied it and (4) those who possessed the Aadhaar data had said that these were absolutely safe. If all these claims, except the CIA's, were true, has the data started changing hands already, as apprehended in this article?

Meanwhile, American whistleblower-in-exile Edward Snowden raised demands against linking of Aadhaar card to various service, claiming that mandatory 'linking action must be criminalised'. He tweeted this while quoting an online article authored by former head of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) K C Verma.

"Rarely do former intel chiefs and I agree, but the head of India's RAW writes  # Aadhaar is being abused by banks, telcos, and transport not to police entitlements, but as a proxy for identity—an improper gate to service. Such demands must be criminalised", Snowden tweeted on January 29, 2010, posting a link to Verma's piece on a news website.

This is the third time he has tweeted something about Aadhaar Card. He also re-tweeted some of the followers who pointed out how banks and telecom companies are insisting on linking the Aadhaar Card with their services.

He also re-tweeted one of the tweets by UlADI itself, adding design flaws in the information flow with Aadhaar.

UIDAI had tweeted on January 16: "#Aadhaar is an identifier, not a profiling tool. Aadhaar database does not keep any in formation about bank accounts, shares, mutual funds, property details, health records, family details, religion, caste, education etc. *AadhaarMythBuster". Snowden quoted this tweet and wrote: "That might be true if banks, landlords, hospitals, schools, telephone & internet companies were prohibited by law from asking for your #Aadhaar number. But any Indian can tell you they're asked for their number by non-government entities—and these companies have databases too".

Vol. 50, No.35, Mar 04 - 10, 2018