Imagine being able to hack someone's personal data simply by entering their mobile phone number into a Google search. There is a website of the Andhra Pradesh government that's leaking people's phone numbers, Aadhaar numbers, father's names, passbook and bank account numbers, and the district and mandal where they live - all the link to all this information is the first result you get when you search for the phone numbers of people in the database.
The Andhra government has been leaking the personal data of more than 23,000 farmers who have received subsidies from the Andhra Pradesh Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Board, and organisation that encourages the growth of Ayurvedic medicines in the state. The subsidies are offered to farmers and tribals in the state, and all their personal data is available on an open database on an Andhra Government website.
The information is not behind any access control, and you can see all the records, click on them to get the details of anyone, or download everything as an Excel sheet. But what's perhaps worse is that simply by searching for the phone numbers of many of these farmers, we were able to find the detailed information about them. HuffPost India randomly chose a dozen farmers, and in each case, this database was the first result for their phone number on Google.
That's the most concerning part - in most cases, even when the information has leaked, it isn't readily apparent to people. You have to know the website address, or at the very least spend some time poring through dashboards. In the case of this latest leak, all you need is the person's phone number, and all their information is made visible. HuffPost India has reported this issue to the AP government, much like earlier leaks, although at the time of writing the data is still available online.
Who's held responsible?
This is just the latest in a long line of leaks from AP - in just the last few months, we've reported on a website that let you geo-locate homes on the basis of caste and religion; while another tracked all the medicines people buy, such as generic viagra, along with their phone numbers; and one that tracked pregnant women in ambulances in real time.
A government official we spoke to in AP Secretariat said that while all the departments have been digitised, an understanding of security - and privacy - is yet to come. "Even if you tell them, 'this data is not something you can publish', they disagree and say that it is needed for the beneficiaries to be able to access their own information," he explained.
Karan Saini, a security analyst and consultant who writes on issues of web security and privacy, told HuffPost that the various government departments are generally unresponsive when breaches like this are brought up.
"Lack of outreach is an issue with all of these organisations," said Saini. "NCIIPC is the only one that can even be found by someone looking at the surface. [These organisations] are hard to get a response from."
One reason for this, said Srinivas Kodali, a security researcher who has revealed a tremendous amount of leaks in the AP system, is that there is no official system of accountability in the government when it comes to data leaks.
In May 2017, the AP government passed the Andhra Pradesh Core Digital Data Authority Act, under which in section 37 it states that no legal proceeding shall lie against any officer or employee for anything which is in good faith done. What this means is that leaks and breaches are not something any official in the government can be held responsible for.
This act came out less than a month after the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru published a report stating that 13 crore Aadhaar numbers were leaked - of which 2 crore were from Andhra Pradesh.
A lack of (human) resources
AP officials do acknowledge the problem. "There is a major shortage of cybersecurity professionals, and hiring them is a challenge," said V Premchand, head of the Andhra Pradesh Technology Service, who is in charge of the ongoing security work in the state. AP has seen a major security audit in May this year, and a privacy audit was announced last month.
"The work is ongoing but it is not something that can happen overnight," Premchand explained. However, others argue that the government isn't doing enough to make use of existing manpower. Unlike other countries, the Indian government does not have any real bug bounty program, where security researchers are incentivised to report weaknesses to organisations for cash rewards and recognition.
Sai Krishna Kothapalli, a student at IIT Guwahati and a security researcher, told HuffPost that the government actively discourages security experts from providing their support, rather than encouraging them.
"The US Department of Defense and others have a responsible disclosure program and a lot of people from India take part in that," he said. "Our talent is being used by them instead because the government here does not reply at all."
"India's top hackers are being employed by people outside the country, even though we have the talent here, because will you spend the time and effort to be ignored here, or report issues to a US company and make thousands of dollars instead?"
However, security audits in India are only being carried out by agencies that have been empaneled, and most of the hackers active here don't have the certification, he added. "They're too busy actually doing the work, while these big companies do audits, and leave all kinds of security issues behind."