The curious case of tweeting an Aadhaar number: trust/mistrust in security practices of public data infrastructures

Monday, 4 March, 2024 - 16:00

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This paper explores data security practices of Aadhaar, India’s biometrics- based national identification number, and the co-constitution of trust and mistrust that underlies its operation as a public data infrastructure. Based on 18-months of multi-sited ethnographic research, I document tensions around whether Aadhaar numbers were designed to be disclosed publicly or kept confidential. I further map identification practices around how residents share their Aadhaar numbers with other government and private organizations to access services. These practices to promote sharing of Aadhaar numbers broke down with growing anxieties over their public disclosure on government websites, lack of audits, and emerging forms of Aadhaar-based frauds. In response to this rising mistrust, an ex-member of Aadhaar’s design team publicly disclosed his number in a tweet that went viral. The paper uses this tweet as a point of departure to: (1) provide an account of infrastructural concerns (grounded in design choices and events) that transformed Aadhaar from a public to a confidential number; and (2) illustrate that this transformation reflects how trust and mistrust co-constitute Aadhaar’s data security practices. I conclude by illustrating how these infrastructural concerns imbricate to produce a spectrum of possibilities where identity numbers are simultaneously public and confidential, trusted and mistrusted.

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