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India’s Har Ghar Tiranga Scheme Sparks Concerns for Data Breach

A shocking revelation has come to light about the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ program by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Under the pretence of nationalism, India asked its citizens to upload personal pictures with a tri-colour flag, while the geo-tagging feature was enabled, to a private website. The government claimed that it was because of Independence Day celebrations. An aggressive marketing campaign was carried out to make this program successful, with many BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) politicians, Bollywood celebrities, cricketers, and public figures urging the citizens to do as their government said.

By August 15, the program was successful in taking the data of more than 60 million Indians. Nearly 50 million of them had geo-tagged the location of their houses. It led digital rights activists to raise the alarm regarding the collection of personal data on a massive scale by using a seemingly harmless voter outreach scheme. It is concerning because collected data can be misused and cause damage to the lured person.

Har Ghar Tiranga Raises Privacy Concerns

Independent journalist Srishti Jaswal first reported about the matter on the website of Rest of the World, a nonprofit international journalism organization. According to her report, the ‘Har Ghar Tiranga’ idea was first discussed during the BJP Hyderabad meeting in July. She said thier initial plan was to collect data of nearly 200 million Indians, which could then be sold to private firms for profit. What is a more perfect time to disguise this plan than Independence Day, when most citizens are vulnerable to manipulation because of nationalistic fervour and zeal? Beloved actors and athletes also peddled excessive pro-BJP propaganda and directed more traffic to the scheme. Even the caller tunes were changed to a voice asking telecom users to give their details for the scheme.

Data Still Accessible after Independence Day

A Free Software Movement of India researcher Srinivas Kodali raised concerns about the Indian government geotagging its own citizens on a remarkable scale. He added that while many previous attempts were made to geotag citizens to make a profit, nothing was compared to the size of Har Ghar Tiranga with an “intention of electioneering”. Any stolen data can be used to fake votes in order to produce the desired result in elections.

Moreover, according to the website policy, the photos people submitted were supposed to be deleted after 15 September. Researchers found that the pictures were still present on the website, easily accessible, zoomable, and “Save as…” -able. The collection also contains images from popular figures in India, including Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth, Anupam Kher, Sachin Tendulkar, and Rohit Sharma.

The website’s policy also says that it does not take pictures of people under 18 years of age, but the data publically available on the website contains photos of kids along with their location.

India’s Obsession with Personal Data of its Citizens

It is not the first time BJP-led Indian government has tried to collect data by unfair means. According to the reports, in 2018, the Aadhar identification database leaked the personal information of all registered citizens, like names, bank details, and biometric data.

In 2021, government websites leaked the names, dates of birth, dates of testing and location of testing centres of at least 1500 citizens who tested for COVID-19. Interestingly, the data was not sold on the dark web but was openly available on Google indexing.

Last year, BJP also tried to force Meta to break End-to-End Encryption (E2EE) for WhatsApp so the Police officers could intercept the messages of protesting farmers. The world’s largest protest by Indian farmers over 3 controversial laws lasted over a year. They only called off the protest when Modi announced the repeal of the controversial laws in November 2021.

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