In a sensational revelation, an RTI reply has indicated that a private vendor previously employed by the ministry of defence may have walked away with the personal data of 50 lakh ex-servicemen. The reply by the MoD, headed by Nirmala Sitharaman, raises several worrying questions in light of the latest reports of Facebook letting users’ data get compromised from its platform.
What’s even more alarming is that the key department within the MoD was utterly reluctant to comment on the queries repeatedly raised by an RTI activist, himself an Armed Forces veteran, Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra, for more than three months.
In his hard-hitting reminder on 21 March, AK Karn, an under secretary level officer in the MoD, wrote to the MD, Ex-Servicemen Contributory Health Scheme (ECHS) and the MOD directing the ministry to furnish the details on ‘report/status on the matter related to Bio-metric/Personal information of ECHS Smart Card held with Private Vendor’ the same day.
Taking a dim view of the delay in reply by the CO, ECHS, Karn also noted, “Co, ECHS was requested vide D/o ESW (Ex-servicemen welfare) aforesaid note dated 16.03.2018 for taking necessary action within three days on the issues raised by Commodore Batra (Retd) and apprising this Ministry accordingly. However, after lapsing the three days’ time, action taken report/status on the above subject is still awaited from CO, ECHS.”
“It is, therefore, requested that the report/ status on the matter related to Bio-metric/Personal information of ECHS Smart Card, held with ‘Private Vendor’ may be furnished to this Ministry by TODAY evening (21 March 2018) Positively,” Karn wrote adding that ‘this may be accorded ‘TOP PRIORITY.’
The CO, ECHS, Colonel Rakesh Sharma did not adhere to the deadline issued by Karn and chose to reply only a day later i.e. 22 March. His reply said, “It is intimated that the system of Smart Card which was in vogue till May 2015, the biomatric data (left & right thumb impression only) of the individual was stored in the Smart Card. (sic)”
Col Sharma then went on to make a stunning confession that the ‘Smart Card was in the custody of the individual’ adding that the ECHS could not comment whether the vendor in question may have retained a copy of personal data of 50 lakh ex-servicemen before his contract was terminated by the MoD. Col Sharma wrote, “No biometric data was stored in the system. The other personal data as per the contract stipulation was handed over to the ECHS on termination of contract. ECHS cannot comment whether a copy of the same has been retained by the company or not.”
This stunning admission has sent shock-waves on the potential data breach of five million ex-servicemen. Speaking to Janta Ka Reporter, Commodre (Retd) Batra, himself an armed forces veteran, said, “It is a shocking statement coming out of the CO, ECHS. While the bio-metric data aspect is still questionable and will require study, the following part of his statement is extremely shocking and chilling. ‘The other personal data as per the contract stipulation was handed over to the ECHS on termination of contract. ECHS cannot comment whether a copy of the same has been retained by the company or not.’”
The news of potential breach of data involving 50 lakhs of ex-servicemen assumes significance in light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal rocking the political world across USA, Europe and India. Commodore Batra said that the latest admission by the CO, ECHS proved why he chose not to ‘respond for nearly four months’ to the officials’ repeated reminders.’
Commodore (Retd) Batra said, “Another issue of much concern is the confidentiality clause(s) included in the MOU signed with the new vendor to ensure safety of personal and bio-metric data of beneficiaries. In case of breach, what are the penalty clauses included in the contract/MoU.”
The revelation also comes hot on the heels of media reports that Director General of NCC had directed units across India to ask their cadets to compulsorily download Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s private mobile app by submitting their personal details including phone numbers and email addresses.
Batra said that it was an ‘extraordinary situation’ where a private vendor, who is no more listed with the government, may have walked away with personal data of nearly 50 lakhs of ex-servicemen. He has asked the government to immediately take stringent actions ‘as per the law of the land.’