UIDAI number popped up in your contacts? Google owns up to putting it there

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Even as the Aadhaar-issuing authority UIDAI said on Friday that it has not asked any phone maker or telecom service provider to include its toll-free number on mobile phones, search engine giant and Android-maker Google said that the number was inserted by the platform in the automatic setup wizard on phones back in 2014.  

Google said that the emergency number 112 and the UIDAI number got "inadvertently coded" in the Indian version of Android and have remained there since. 

"Since the numbers get listed on a user's contacts list these get transferred accordingly to the contacts on any new device," a Google spokesperson said. 

"We are sorry for any concern that this might have caused, and would like to assure everyone that this is not a situation of an unauthorised access of their Android devices," the statement said, adding that the company will work to get the numbers removed in the upcoming release of its software, which will be made available to handset makers. 

Google's response came as a relief for the social media community, which was in a frenzy over the mystery of the UIDAI's helpline number 1800-300-1947 being found in people's contacts list on most Android devices. As people questioned the Aadhaar-authority over the protocol followed for inserting the number, UIDAI denied these charges.  

Telecom operators' body COAI, too, said none of its members had pre-loaded any unknown numbers on any mobile phone.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) said the number 1800-300-1947 appearing in the contact list of Android phones is an "outdated and invalid" helpline number.

Defending itself after drawing flak on social media over the default inclusion of the number in mobile phone contact lists, the Aadhaar-issuing body said in a statement, "...the said 18003001947 is not a valid UIDAI toll-free number and some vested interests are trying to create unwarranted confusion in the public."

The UIDAI's valid toll-free number is 1947, which is functional for more than last two years, it said.

"UIDAI has reiterated that it has not asked or advised anyone including any telecom service providers or mobile manufacturers or Android to include 18003001947 or 1947 in the default list of public service numbers," the statement added.

Joining the debate over the UIDAI number being auto-saved on mobile phones, industry body COAI on Friday said: "The inclusion of a certain unknown number in the phonebooks of various mobile handsets is not from any telecom service provider." The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) represents the voice of large telecom operators in the country, including Bharti Airtel, Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Reliance Jio.

When contacted, Indian Cellular Association (ICA) National President Pankaj Mohindroo told PTI that the industry body had "not got any mandate from anyone to put any such number".

The industry body represents mobile phone brands and large and small handset manufacturers.

The appearance of the number on smartphones had caused a social media furore, as users expressed concerns over how the helpline number had snuck into their smartphone contact list. #UIDAI was trending on the micro-blogging site as the Twitterati sought to unravel the mystery, and questioned the "breach of privacy".

On Thursday, a French security expert, who goes under the pseudonym Elliot Alderson and describes himself as the "worst nightmare" of the UIDAI, had tweeted, "Hi @UIDAI, Many people, with different provider, with and without an #Aadhaar card, with and without the mAadhaar app installed, noticed that your phone number is predefined in their contact list by default and so without their knowledge. Can you explain why?" Alderson, in one of his latest tweets, said, "Ask to yourself: What is the interest for Indian phone manufacturers to add the @UIDAI number by default?."

A vigilante hacker who uses the handle @fs0c131y on Twitter, Alderson was vocal during the recent Aadhaar dare thrown by Trai chief R S Sharma and has, in the past, also revealed purported flaws in the Aadhaar system.

The UIDAI controversy -- the second in the last one week -- comes at a time when the Supreme Court has reserved its judgement on a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act.

Also, with the public and private sectors collecting and using personal data on an unprecedented scale and for various purposes, instances of unregulated and arbitrary use, especially that of personal data, have raised concerns about the privacy and autonomy of an individual.

Over the last one year, there have been umpteen reports of personal information being allegedly compromised with increasing use of biometric identifier Aadhaar in an array of services.