My recent column on the Indian consulate in San Francisco dumping thousands of visa applications and other sensitive documents in a local recycling yard raised a variety of troubling questions—not least, haven’t these guys ever heard of identity theft?
But a potentially graver danger, as numerous readers pointed out, lay in the easygoing response to the incident offered by consul general B.S. Prakash, and in his observation that Indians simply don’t worry as much about personal data getting out as Westerners do.
“In India, I would not be alarmed,” Prakash said last week. “We have grown up giving such information in many places. We would not be so worried if someone had our passport number.” This sentiment didn’t sit well with readers like Novato, California, resident Anne Rabbitt. “With the number of US companies sending their back-office processing to India, you would have to wonder how secure our personal information truly is,” she said.
Rabbitt’s point... is that no matter what security policies are implemented by American companies that outsource operations abroad, those policies are only as reliable as the overseas workers who are responsible for following them.
Ashok Bardhan, a senior research associate at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who specializes in outsourcing, said privacy standards in India are “pretty close” to those in the West. “But I wouldn’t say they are the same,” he said.
“There are, of course, cultural differences,” Bardhan said. “India is a country with one billion people living cheek by jowl. The notion of Western privacy doesn’t apply.”
Perhaps that played a role in the Indian consulate hiring a hauling company in December to take dozens of white boxes —some clearly marked ”visa applications” — to the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council recycling centre near Golden Gate Park.
The boxes sat in an open-air, publicly-accessible yard for more than a month until my inquiries prompted the facility’s general manager to bring in a truck and have the paperwork carted to an East Bay plant that will boil down the documents and recycle them as blank pages.
Information on the documents includes people’s names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, professions, employers, passport numbers and photos—a potential bonanza for identity thieves or terrorists, security experts say.
Among those affected by the incident are Byron Pollitt, chief financial officer of San Francisco’s Gap Inc., and Anne Gust, wife of California attorney general Jerry Brown. Visa applications submitted by both in 2004 were found at the recycling centre.
“As a past victim of identity theft, I am painfully aware of how important it is to ensure personal information is well protected,” Pollitt said afterward.
Prakash at the consulate viewed things a little differently. “As we see it, the documents are not confidential,” he told me. “We would see something as confidential if it has a social security number or a credit card number, not a passport number.”
...And that should alarm many in this country whose personal info already resides in Bangalore, Mumbai and elsewhere.