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How the hysteria about phones ‘hacked’ to add Aadhaar helpline number was spread

Yesterday there was massive brouhaha on Social Media about the Aadhaar helpline number mysteriously appearing on people’s contact list. There were concerns raised about the security of data and how the UIDAI could possibly access people’s phonebooks and add the helpline number without requisite permission or authorisation.

Many took to Twitter including security experts to talk about the helpline number appearing on phones. The French security researcher claimed that it was “surprising and interesting” that the Aadhaar helpline number was added to people’s contact list.

Alderson had not made any assertions of phones being “hacked” to feed the helpline number. However, soon many journalists and news agencies jumped on the bandwagon and claimed that phones have been “hacked” nationally and that this was “bizarre”.

Times Now did a story that claimed that “Androids have been hacked nationally”.

Other journalists too, toed the same line.

Journalists spread rumours far and wide. Even Nidhi Razdan jumped into the mix to say that the numbers were appearing on iPhone as well.

This fear mongering also found its way to WhatsApp, ironically, right when the mainstream media has been discussing WhatsApp being used to spread panic.

Soon, UIDAI clarified that it had not asked any service provider or even Android to include the helpline numbers.

UIDAI also mentioned that the toll-free number was “invalid and outdated”.

Unfortunately, patience isn’t a virtue in journalism anymore and evidently, neither is research.

Upon investigating further, we found a tweet from a tech analyst and IT security expert from 2016 that claimed that phone makers were starting to hard code Aadhaar/UIDAI toll-free number in the contact list. He provided screenshots of the number being added on a MotoG4.

Turns out, the mass hysteria could have been averted if journalists had just done a little more research. Prasanna’s assertions back in 2016 turned out to be true when Google tweeted their clarification and apologised

The Google explanation said that since 2014, the then UIDAI helpline number and the 112 distress number was coded into the Setup Wizard of Andriod and have remained there since. Google assured that it was not the case of any unauthorised access and apologised for any inconvenience caused. They also reiterated that users can manually delete the number if they so choose and that they are working towards fixing the upcoming version of the Setup Wizard.

Eventhough UIDAI too issued an explanation, their statement was misinterpreted by some to mean that UIDAI was disowning the number and saying that it wasn’t a toll-free helpline of Aadhaar to begin with.

UIDAI had mentioned that their new helpline was active for the past 2 years and that the number which was fed into the phone was invalid and no longer in use. Considering Google mentioned that the number was coded into the phone in 2014, the fact that UIDAI now uses a different helpline number for the past 2 years is not far-fetched.

There were also people who complained of the number mysteriously appearing on the Apple phones.

While Google explained how it was coded into the Android devices, it also mentioned that since the numbers get listed in the contacts list, it can get transferred to any new device through contacts considering Android users use Gmail to sync their contacts.

While Google has published a detailed explanation, one would imagine that the fear mongering could have been averted by more research considering news of the numbers being coded into the phone were strife from at least 2016.

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