Telecom operators are pushing the government to explore legal ways to bring back Aadhaarbased customer verification, by either approaching the Supreme Court for allowing voluntary use of the unique 12-digit number for the electronic know your customer (e-KYC) process or bringing in a legislative framework.
The view is that if mobile phone companies are allowed to offer Aadhaar-based verification as a voluntary option to customers, then they do not need to implement any other digital KYC method, a time-taking and costly affair.
This comes even as the Department of Telecommunications (DoT), Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and carriers have worked out a new way of e-KYC — a live picture of the user with the time stamp and a photo of a government-issued ID card.
According to officials in the know, the matter was discussed at a meeting last week between DoT, UIDAI and operators. “We still believe Aadhaar is the most secure from the security point of view and the best method to ensure customer privacy is maintained,” said Rajan Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India, which represents all non-state telecom companies.
“We have requested DoT to see if Aadhaar can be brought back under conditions that comply with the Supreme Court’s order.” The proposal may require discussing it with the home ministry or other legislative bodies.
The court had, last month, struck down a provision in the Aadhaar Act that allowed biometric verification by private entities. Aadhaar-based e-KYC had helped telcos scale up quickly and save on the considerable costs required for paper-based verification.
But by the time the order came, 90% of new subscriptions had already used the unique ID due to factors such as convenience, though some avoid giving the biometric ID on fears of privacy and data leakage. More than 500 million, or about half of India’s mobile phone users, have linked Aadhaar to their phone numbers.
A senior executive at a prominent telecom company confirmed that in a meeting held last week, DoT was told to see if Aadhaar-based verification can still be an option.
“We asked DoT to look at legal options that will allow telcos to digitally verify subscribers who volunteer Aadhaar,” said the executive, who did not want to be named. According to him, DoT told them that it was reviewing all possibilities.
Finance minister Arun Jaitley has previously indicated that last month’s court order offered scope for private companies such as telecom operators to still use the Aadhaar-based authentication system if it’s backed by a new law.
Telcos have already submitted plans to exit Aadhaar-based verification. This was followed by a meeting with DoT, where the Apex Advisory Council for Telecom in India (ACT), which includes industry body COAI, presented DoT with other forms of verification.
A government official confirmed that even though the Centre was working on a new app for authentication — whereby instant SIM cards can be issued by taking a live picture, time stamp and the photo of any valid government identification — telcos were more keen on bringing in a law to back using Aadhaar KYC.
Operators are not happy with the court order and some had written to UIDAI arguing that although they would comply with the verdict, all investments made so far in e-KYC would now be wasted if the process was completely scrapped.
While DoT’s instructions are yet to come in, confusion continues on how to digitally verify customers without Aadhaar. For instance, at its quarterly results meeting, Reliance Jio Infocomm said it continued to use the 12-digit code for digital verification of those who were ready to provide it. This would continue till further orders from DoT, it had said.
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