Amazon is asking customers in India — a large and crucial market — to upload copies of their Aadhaar, India’s controversial biometric ID, to its website to track down lost packages. BuzzFeed News reviewed chats between half a dozen Amazon customers in India and the company’s customer service agents in November and discovered that Amazon’s agents said not uploading a copy of Aadhaar “might result in a delay in the resolution or no resolution” of the case.
The move has baffled Amazon’s Indian customers. For months, Indians have been grappling with their government forcing them to link Aadhaar with their bank accounts and health insurance among other things. Private companies like cellphone carriers and FedEx have also demanded customers’ Aadhaar details to provide services. Many are concerned because critics say linking Aadhaar to both significant and mundane parts your life enables the state and private players to track your every move.
“[Being asked for my Aadhaar] was like being blackmailed to link [it] with my Amazon account if I wanted to get the products I had already paid for,” Shraddha Kosaria, an Amazon customer in the Indian city of Kolkata, told BuzzFeed News. “It was absurd and frustrating.”
“There are people who may not have any other form of ID besides Aadhaar,” an Amazon spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “And we really need to establish the identity of an individual when they claim missing packages.”
India’s Aadhaar program is a centralized, government-sanctioned database that links demographic information such as names, dates of birth, addresses, and mobile numbers along biometric data like fingerprints and iris scans to a unique ID number. Nearly 90% of India’s 1.3 billion people now have an Aadhaar, making it the first national ID database of this scale anywhere in the world. It’s now mandatory to have an Aadhaar to open bank accounts, file taxes, and buy a SIM card, among dozens of other things in India. But critics have slammed the program, which stores personal details of every Indian on centralized government servers, for posing a serious threat to privacy, and for enabling mass surveillance. Cryptographer and cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier told BuzzFeed News earlier this year: “When this database is hacked — and it will be — it will be because someone breaches the computer security that protects the computers actually using the data. They will go around the encryption.”
That hasn’t stopped Silicon Valley tech firms, for whom India is the largest and most important market outside the United States, from using it in their products. As BuzzFeed News exclusively reported, Airbnb and Uber, and its Softbank-backed Indian rival Ola, are exploring ways to integrate Aadhaar into their products in India. And earlier this year, Microsoft baked Aadhaar authentication right into Skype Lite, a version of the video and voice messaging app targeted at people in developing markets like India.
Gitanjali, an Amazon customer in Mumbai who did not want her last name to be published, for privacy reasons, told BuzzFeed News she contacted the retailer after it showed that a dog blanket she ordered earlier this month had been delivered, even though she didn’t actually receive it. “I got cheesed off after [Amazon customer care] asked me for a copy of my Aadhaar just to raise an investigation,” she said. “I have no idea what the purpose of asking me for my Aadhaar is!”
Amazon told BuzzFeed News that the company asks for Aadhaar to authenticate the identity of customers who claim their packages are lost or missing. “Aadhaar is our preferred ID because it is the most widely held form of ID [in India] right now,” an Amazon India spokesperson said. If a customer doesn’t have Aadhaar, they said, the company would typically ask for any government-certified identification and carry out the investigation “in the best possible way, although that may, at times, have certain limitations.”
But multiple Amazon customers told BuzzFeed News they had to argue long and hard to get Amazon to take up their complaints without submitting their Aadhaar numbers first. Amazon’s interface for uploading photo ID proofs on its Indian website lists Aadhaar and PAN — an ID that is required for filing taxes in India — as the only acceptable identification.
“I was told that that my complaint cannot be registered unless I provided my Aadhaar,” Priyesh Shah, an Amazon customer from New Delhi, told BuzzFeed News. “It took an almost 45-minute conversation and multiple escalations to have the complaint registered without my Aadhaar details.”
Amazon’s use of Aadhaar does seems logical in a country where people are quickly discovering ways to defraud online sellers in a still-nascent e-commerce sector. Last month, for instance, a man in New Delhi duped Amazon by ordering expensive mobile phones 166 times and then asking for a refund after claiming that all he had received were empty boxes. According to reports, he made 52 million rupees (approximately $80,000) in two months by cheating Amazon.
“For someone like Amazon, a long purchase history will indicate a genuine customer when something like this happens,” said Kiran Jonnalagadda, cofounder of the Internet Freedom Foundation, a volunteer-driven online privacy organization in Bangalore, and a vocal Aadhaar critic. “But most of their customers in India are relatively new — so it’s harder to catch fraud.” Asking for Aadhaar, therefore, makes sense, said Jonnalagadda, who still cautioned that tying yet another private service into Aadhaar is fraught.
Critics have called out private companies plugging into India’s Aadhaar database in the past. “I think it’s problematic that such an extensive ecosystem is being built around Aadhaar, whether by Indian startups or Western companies, while a comprehensive privacy law remains nonexistent in India,” Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, an organization that works on issues of free speech, democracy, and social justice on the internet in India, told BuzzFeed News earlier this year. It’s a statement that Jonnalagadda echoed. “All these actors collectively help build the case for the larger surveillance machinery in India,” he said.
“Look, Amazon is nothing more than a shop to me,” said Gitanjali, the Amazon customer who bought a dog blanket. “It’s just an online storefront I buy things from. And now this storefront wants to collect my most private piece of information from me just to raise an investigation! For something I’ve already paid for! It’s crazy.”