VAHAN data used to ‘target’ Muslims

At least 142 commercial organisations have reportedly bought access to the databases.

Hyderabad: A few days ago, during riots in Delhi, there were reports that information from the Union ministry of road, transport and highways’ VAHAN database, the national vehicle registry, was being used to target Muslim citizens and their properties.

While the reports are unconfirmed, activists pointed out that the database is ripe for misuse and poses real danger to the general public, especially minorities. VAHAN is a database of registration details of over all vehicles — over 25 crore according to the ministry — in the country.

Any citizen can access its website, enter a registration number and access details about the vehicle, including the owner’s name. Activists noted that in India, a name can reveal many things about a person, such as religion and caste, and this information should not be accessible to the general public. This information can also be accessed through many mobile apps, including the ministry’s official app “mParivahan”, most of which are free to use.

In theory, a rioter can use the website or one of the several apps to target people of a certain community. After all, once one knows the name of a person who owns a particular parked motorcycle or car, his/her house can’t be that far away.

The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) has written to transport minister Nitin Gadkari asking for the VAHAN database to be made inaccessible to the general public.

Mr Sidharth Deb, parliamentary and policy counsel at IFF, noted that the database’s accessibility was a violation of the Right to Privacy, as upheld by the Supreme Court in the Puttuswamy judgment of 2017.

Speaking to Deccan Chronicle, Mr Deb said that though the reports of database’s misuse are not confirmed, they have brought to light the fact that the Bulk Data Sharing Policy is an “excessive mechanism”. “When a customer buys a vehicle and gives his data to the Transport authorities is for a specific purpose. So any other use of these details does appear to be an overreach by the state,” he said.

Mr Deb was referring to the MoRTH’s Bulk Data Sharing Policy which was rolled out in March 2019. The ministry sells yearly access to the VAHAN and Sarathi (collection of driving license details) databases to private entities for commercial organisations at `3 crore and educational institutions at `5 lakh. At least 142 commercial organisations have reportedly bought access to these databases.

Experts have noted that the policy can also make possible the risk of “triangulation” — when datasets are matched to identify persons. Mr Shashidhar KJ, associate fellow at think-tank Observer Research Foundation (ORF), who had authored a paper on the subject in December 2019, said the policy is indicative of the government’s philosophy of treating data as if it is a resource. “You cannot treat data like a natural resource, like oil. The government is only looking at data as a commodity. But it is a lot more than that,” he said.

Mr Shashidhar argued that in the current system, in which anyone can access the data, the benefits outweigh the risks. “There is indeed a valid use case where this data can be useful. For instance, it can be used for one is looking to buy a second-hand car and wants to validate its history. But it cannot be made open to the general public and needs more checks and balances on who can access this information,” he said.

Mr Shashidhar added that the VAHAN database is only the start of the government’s ambitions to monetising data.

“The Economic Survey of 2018-19 argues that India should not be left behind when it comes to monetising data. It argues for monetising databases of other government departments. The VAHAN database, I think, is only the start of this monetisation effort,” he said.

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